As administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, David Strickland drafts the regulations that make cars safe to drive.
Strickland’s job is becoming more difficult as automakers race to add streaming video, Wi-Fi hot spots, and voice-controlled Facebooking to their cars.
Are those technologies safe, or are they dangerous distractions? Strickland and his colleagues must decide. Facing conflicting pressures from automakers, consumers, and politicians, the agency is due to release, over the next two years, a raft of guidelines on everything from hands-free phones to voice-recognition and vehicle communications systems that could warn drivers of impending accidents.
One area where the NHTSA has taken a clear position is on hand-held cell phones. It calls their use by drivers a deadly distraction that causes highway deaths. Since the NHTSA doesn’t regulate behavior, it has instead worked with legislators in 35 states to pass bills banning texting while driving.
Susan Kuchinskas spoke to Strickland about whether communication technologies will make automobiles safer.
TR: You have a degree from Harvard Law School, and you’re also a certified child safety seat technician. What did baby seats teach you?
Strickland: I learned that the best type of safety system was one that is seamless to the owner and to the operator. A good human-machine interface, good design—it’s those elegant things that have the best impact.
What worries you most about information technology in cars?
The design trends are actually, in my view, positive. You have the manufacturers embracing our safety rating programs. They are not just competing on safety but also making capital investments on safety technology for the future.
I will say that if there is an issue we have to deal with, it’s the public at large. We have a generation of young people used to being connected 24 hours a day. It’s considered socially rude to not respond within a handful of seconds to a text or a tweet or a Facebook post. How can we convey the message that it’s okay to be disconnected while behind the wheel?