Senator Wants Rules for In-Car Cell Phone Use Unless Risks Curbed

By Jeff Plungis | February 7, 2014

A top U.S. senator is vowing to pursue rules governing in-vehicle use of mobile phones and Internet-connected entertainment systems unless automakers and technology companies do more to reduce driver distractions.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, told officials of companies including General Motors Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Google Inc., Samsung Electronics Co., AT&T Inc. and Apple Inc. to move faster on implementing standards for in-car technology use. He convened an unusual all- day forum in Washington yesterday on the topic.

“Why is it so important for kids to drive around and update their Facebook statuses?” asked Rockefeller, 76. “For teenagers, it’s a way of being cool. For those of you who sell cars, it’s a way of you being cool and making a lot of money from that.”

Referring to accidents caused by distracted drivers, he then asked: “How many people died? How many people have almost died?”

vehicle technologyAutomakers have promoted voice-based messaging as a safer alternative to taking hands off the steering wheel to place a phone call. About 9 million infotainment systems will be shipped this year in cars sold worldwide, with that number projected to rise to more than 62 million by 2018, according to a March report by London-based ABI Research.

Executives at the Commerce Committee roundtable said industry standards on built-in electronics like GM’s OnStar and Ford Motor Co.’s Sync are working well. Smartphones like those operating on Apple’s IOS and Google’s Android operating systems present a harder challenge, they said.

Constant Connection

People want to be connected all the time, said John Godfrey, vice president communications policy and regulatory affairs at Samsung, the maker of Galaxy phones and tablet computers. Applications can be simplified and controlled by voice, he said.

“If we don’t affirmatively make safe ways for people to use whatever it is they’re using, people will find ways to get around the systems,” Godfrey said.

Apple will soon bring out IOS for cars, making driver- friendly apps like Maps and iTunes work through a vehicle’s built-in screen said Timothy Powderly, the Cupertino, California-based company’s director of federal government affairs.

“We want to create solutions people want to use,” said Andrew Brenner, Google’s Android automotive product manager.

While maps, music and news features can make driving better, too much focus has been applied to those services and the connectivity to drivers’ smartphones, Rockefeller said.

‘Very Nervous’

“I’m very nervous, not just about deaths but about close- to-death injuries,” Rockefeller said. “All for the sake of outdoing each other and making more money.”

General Motors Co., the largest U.S. automaker, has had driving-distraction guidelines for more than 15 years, since introducing its OnStar system, said Michael Robinson, the Detroit-based company’s vice president of sustainability and global regulatory affairs. In-car communications and mobile phones are providing an enormous safety benefit through automatic crash notifications and fast calls to 911, he said.

“The connectivity you’re worried about for social media is the very same that enables us to save thousands of lives every year,” Robinson said.

Wrong Focus

Other executives said consumers will use mobile phones regardless of the wishes of lawmakers or companies. And asking whether people need to update their Facebook pages in their cars is the wrong question, said Robert Strassburger, vice president of vehicle safety and harmonization at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a Washington-based trade group.

“We live in a society where we demand to be connected, 24/7, 365 days a year,” Strassburger said. “We have to design systems so people will want to tether their devices to their vehicles.”

Too often, companies are deferring to people’s desires without remembering there are more than 30,000 highway fatalities every year, said David Teater, senior director of transportation safety initiatives at the National Safety Council. About 90 percent of the crashes are due to driver error, he said.

“Why would we want to introduce other tasks for the driver to be engaged in that have nothing to do with the task of driving?” Teater asked.

Rockefeller, first elected to his Senate seat in 1984, has announced he isn’t seeking a sixth term in this November’s election.

(Editors: Michael Shepard, Don Frederick)

Related Articles:

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Inexperienced Teen Drivers Easily Fall Into Distraction, Accidents

Top 10 Driving Distractions Involved in Fatal Car Crashes

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