Car, tech lobbies bristle at call to lock phone apps

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Groups that lobby for carmakers and technology companies are accusing President Barack Obama’s administration of overreaching in its final days with its proposal to ask phone companies to lock most of their popular applications during driving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is proposing a new rule that would ask manufacturers of phones and other electronic devices to voluntarily lock most applications that could distract drivers when cars are in motion. Under the proposal, features like internet browsing and texting would be blocked on phones that are paired to the on-board computer systems of cars.

Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of Consumer Technology Association, said the highway safety agency has overstepped its bounds in moving to regulate devices that are not built into cars.

“NHTSA’s approach to distracted driving is disturbing. Rather than focus on devices which could reduce drunk driving, they have chosen to exceed their actual authority and regulate almost every portable device,” Shapiro said in a statement.

“This regulatory overreach could thwart the innovative solutions and technologies that help drivers make safer decisions from ever coming to market,” he continued. “Further, NHTSA doesn’t have the authority to dictate the design of smartphone apps and other devices used in cars — its legal jurisdiction begins and ends with motor vehicle equipment.”

The proposal to lock phone applications during driving is the second phase of a NHTSA proposal to reduce instances of distracted driving. The first phase of the proposed rules focused on entertainment systems that are built into vehicles.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said “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.”

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind added: “NHTSA has long encouraged drivers to put down their phones and other devices, and just drive. With driver distraction one of the factors behind the rise of traffic fatalities, we are committed to working with the industry to ensure that mobile devices are designed to keep drivers’ eyes where they belong — on the road.”

Safety advocates praised the Obama administration for moving to reduce the number of applications that could potentially keep drivers from focusing on the road.

The Itasca, Ill.-based National Safety Council said it “shares NHTSA’s concern about the distraction of electronic devices used in vehicles” in comments that were submitted to the agency. The group pushed for the request that cellphone applications be locked during motion to be made mandatory, however.

“Distracted driving has become a traffic safety epidemic,” the safety group wrote. “While expecting voluntary compliance with federal guidelines is a laudable goal, the history of traffic safety in the U.S. is replete with examples in which voluntary compliance did not result in significant behavior change.”

The Washington, D.C.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said it is still reviewing the Obama administration’s proposal to reduce distracted driving by placing limits on cellphone application.

Wade Newton, director of communications at the Auto Alliance, said in an email that it is important for regulators to address distract driving “holistically,” but he said it is easier for automakers to block access to electronic devices during driving that are built into cars.

“Effectively combating distracted driving relies upon building on the steps automakers have already taken to minimize distraction,” Newton said. “We believe it’s important to encourage drivers to use in-vehicle systems rather than handheld personal electronic devices that were not engineered for use in the driving environment.”

The auto alliance group represents Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., BMW Group, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz USA, Mitsubishi Motors, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen Group of America and Volvo Car USA.

The consumer tech group’s Shapiro said the proposal to regulate phone use in cars is a last-minute “attempt by the outgoing Obama administration to push out highly-questionable, de facto regulations and expand its regulatory reach” that “flies in the face of Congress’ order not to issue any new actions before the new administration takes office.

“NHTSA’s regulatory premise is dangerously expansive, representing the worst of government overreach,” he said. “Under their vision, they would have the influence to control the design of technology products down to the fitness tracker worn on a driver. Such a vast and extreme expansion of NHTSA’s authority, if it were to happen, would have to be explicitly granted by Congress.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing