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New guidelines may restrict in-car GPS gadgets

Odd Andersen / AFP-Getty Images file

According to the NHTSA, 26,000 crashes a year involve "a device/control integral to the vehicle.

As federal regulators move forward on plans to put new distracted driving regulations in place, it’s quite possible that future rules would bar the use of in-car navigation systems – at least as we know them today.

In fact, many of the basic features that buyers are coming to expect – and that manufacturers are pushing, much to the delight of their accounting departments – could be severely restricted or even barred entirely.

Research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration contends that of nearly 900,000 crashes reported to police, 17 percent involved some form of distracted driving.  Of that figure, 3 percent, or 26,000 crashes, involved “a device/control integral to the vehicle,” according to NHTSA.  That could cover anything from a poorly placed switch for an SUV’s rear windshield to the controls for a 14-way power seat.

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But much of the focus is on infotainment technology, including such systems as onboard navigation and SMS text messaging.

 In particular, proposed NHTSA guidelines suggest that the agency will target “Systems providing non-safety-related dynamic visual information.”  In more simple terms, said the agency, “Dynamic, continuously-moving maps are not recommended.”

According to the proposal, alternative means of displaying map information might be acceptable.  That could be a fixed map or one that updates occasionally, rather than continuously.

The proposals might also permit a navigation system to use voice alerts, perhaps dispensing with the video screen entirely when the vehicle is in motion.  That would be a potential plus for systems, such as OnStar, that primarily rely on verbal cues rather than on-screen maps.

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While manufacturers have been adding voice alerts – as well as the ability to program navi systems by voice – for a number of years, they’re likely to resist such severe restrictions on navigation technology, and are already questioning whether motorists might actually become more confused – and thus distracted – if they can’t actually see in real time when they approach a turn or intersection.

The proposed NHTSA guidelines, notes CNET.com, cite several studies to suggest that motorists are less likely to become distracted by voice alerts.  But those studies actually focus on hands-free cellphone usage, not navigation systems.

Nonetheless, the data from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration seems to counter concerns about the use of Bluetooth technology, indicating that the use of a hands-free phone is no more dangerous than talking with a passenger in the vehicle itself.

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Among other things, the proposed distracted driving rules might also mean a lot less detail on your screen when you display information from a radio station or your iPhone.  It would allow no more than 30 characters per screen – and bar scrolling messages.  To put that into perspective, that would be equal to barely a quarter of a single line of text on the average computer screen, or about four to six words.

Federal regulators are holding a series of meetings to discuss the distracted driving guidelines and it’s far from certain the proposal now on the table will become law.  While most manufacturers have acknowledged there’s a need to address distractions they’re reluctant to take draconian steps that might limit the growing demand for – extremely profitable –onboard electronics.

But barring a significant shift in position by NHTSA or the Department of Transportation, it’s highly likely that some tightening of the rules will take place in the coming year, observers anticipate.