NHTSA proposes development of 'driver mode' for smartphones

By Mark Schremmer, Land Line staff writer | 11/30/2016

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is asking smartphone manufacturers to develop a “driver mode” that will prevent drivers from texting and using most of the phone’s applications.

NHTSA’s request was part of its proposed guidelines released on Nov. 23 to help address driver distraction caused by mobile and other electronic devices in vehicles.

“Far too many (Americans) are put at risk by drivers who are distracted by their cellphones,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a news release. “These commonsense guidelines, grounded in the best research available, will help designers of mobile devices build products that cut down on distraction on the road.”

The proposal, which would serve as guidelines for drivers of passenger vehicles and commercial motor vehicles, encourages portable and aftermarket electronic device developers to design products that, when used while driving, reduce the potential for driver distraction. The guidelines encourage manufacturers to implement such features as pairing, where a portable device is linked to a vehicle’s infotainment system, as well as “driver mode,” which is a simplified user interface.

NHTSA says pairing and “driver mode” will reduce the potential for unsafe driver distraction by limiting the time a driver’s eyes are off the road, while at the same time preserving the full functionality of the devices when they are used at other times.

The agency’s first recommendation is for portable devices to be paired with a driver’s in-vehicle system.

“The functions and applications on the portable device should be operable exclusively through the in-vehicle system’s interface with the exception of accessing emergency services and messages,” the guidelines said.

In cases where pairing isn’t possible or where a driver chooses not to use pairing, NHTSA is asking manufacturers to create a “driver mode” that would prohibit a driver from using many of the device’s functions.

During “driver mode,” a driver would be locked out from:

  • Device functions and tasks not intended to be used by a driver while driving
  • Manual text entry
  • Displaying video
  • Displaying images
  • Automatically scrolling text
  • Displaying text to be read

According to a spokesperson for NHTSA, “driver mode” would still allow a driver to send and receive phone calls. The function also would not prevent a driver from using GPS or map applications, but the agency suggests that drivers program the desired route prior to the start of the trip.

“Ideally, a driver mode would not be necessary since NHTSA believes those functions related to the driving task should occur when the device is paired with an in-vehicle system that conforms with (guidelines),” NHTSA wrote in the guidelines. “However, our data confirms what everyday observation indicates: Many drivers routinely use their portable device(s) while driving. The agency believes that over time as pairing becomes easier, increased device pairing may help reduce this behavior but is unlikely to eliminate it, because not all vehicles will have been designed to allow pairing and drivers may not choose to pair their devices.”

NHTSA said technology is being developed to determine whether a portable device is being used by the driver so that “driver mode” would be activated automatically. However, the agency acknowledges that the technology isn’t refined yet and is proposing voluntary activation of “driver mode.”

Since NHTSA’s proposal is a guideline and not regulation, it is voluntary and non-binding.

Comments on the proposed guidelines can be made online, or by sending mail to U.S. Department of Transportation, 1200 New Jersey Ave. SE, West Building Ground Floor, Room W12-140, Washington, D.C. 20590-0001.

Related content: Let's talk about cellphone distractions

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