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The Car Safety Czar

As automakers put more communication technology into cars, regulators must decide if it’s safe.
January 23, 2012

As administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, David Strickland drafts the regulations that make cars safe to drive.

Eyes on the road: Highway safety chief David Strickland has led a campaign against distracted driving. Now his agency faces automakers eager to add more gadgets to cars.

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?

In December, the independent National Transportation Safety Board recommended that states enact bans against any kind of cell-phone use in cars. A week later, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood backpedaled, saying that only hand-held phones were the problem. Is there a disconnect in the government’s thinking?

No. The NTSB staked out a position we think is premature. We at the Department of Transportation—and specifically NHTSA—have always said this had to be a data-driven decision. There are some things we know clearly raise the risk of the driver. Anything that gets your eyes off the road and your hands off the wheel is something we want to foreclose. We know for a fact that [using a hand-held phone] is a dangerous activity, and we need to do our best to make sure we decrease or possibly eliminate it.

At the Detroit Auto Show, car makers showcased concept cars that let you tweet, Facebook, and Yelp in the car. Do you fear that innovation is outpacing policy?

Clearly the march of industry and innovation will always move faster than the regulatory framework. We try to have ongoing conversations with manufacturers, to show the issues, questions, and concerns that we have in the early phase and clearly stake out a place where we would like to be. We have a distraction research plan, and the first phase is to roll out guidelines for in-vehicle displays and interactions.

A number of those interfaces have interlocks [that block services while driving], or it could all be done by voice. We will be reviewing these systems and making our own decisions. Clearly, there is a move to provide these services to folks, and everybody is trying to find the place which, number one, is a zone of safety, and second, being able to provide a platform of innovation where people can provide services that not only support the driver but that people want.

NHTSA plans to issue guidelines on car-to-car connectivity by 2013. The main point is that cars that talk to each other will be safer. But will a “social” fleet bring new distractions?

NHTSA will take the lead in making a decision about connected vehicles in 2013, which is the first time the department has actually laid out a direct course of action which will advance vehicle connectivity. There are a number of stakeholders. For manufacturers, not only are safety applications first and foremost, but there are other applications that could encourage advertising and things of that nature. I’m sure there are folks in the cell-phone community and applications community that would have an interest in this. But first things first: it is a safety application first. Anything else will be layered on top of and cannot subrogate the notion of safety.

The other great benefit of vehicle connectivity is congestion mitigation. When a vehicle knows that there’s a backup ahead, if you have an opportunity to divert and find another way to work, we have the benefit of getting people to their destination sooner. Not only will it be safer, it will also be greener and better for the environment, because we’re not having cars sitting on the expressway idling.

What other new technologies hold promise for reducing traffic fatalities?

As a safety and public-health agency, we have to look to the horizon as to what could be a disruptive change to get the number of fatalities and injuries down. In addition to crash avoidance, there are a number of things with great promise that are more long-range.

One that currently exists and we hope could be deployed throughout the vehicle fleet is automatic crash notification. In automatic auto crash notification, like the OnStar system, if you happen to be in a crash, the system notifies a switchboard, and you get a readout on some basic things like how hard a crash it is and where it’s located. An advanced system provides a lot more data, such as which side of the car was the initial point of impact, the severity of the crash, or whether the car was rolled over. It can also make a predictive calculation about the state of the driver or any passenger in the vehicle, which then indicates what level of trauma intervention you need. All of these things can help first responders to get people the right level of care in a much faster and more efficient way.

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