(Mis)Uses of Technology

by Tim Cushing

Filed Under:
gps, nhtsa, safety

National Highway Transportation Safety Agency Says You Can Keep Your GPS -- As Long As It's Completely Useless

from the to-continue-map,-please-eject-and-turn-to-Side-'B' dept

The National Highway Transportation Safety Agency (hereafter "NHTSA" or "OMG,SRSLY?") just published its recommendations and guidelines for reducing driver distraction, America's number one cause of traffic accidents.* Universally hailed as a "dense document" and "full of minutia," the NHTSA's lengthy tome provides car makers with numerous diagrams and sub-paragraphs to aid them in building distraction-free vehicles for the Americans everywhere who wish to live a long, prosperous life full of road safety and optimal viewing angles.

*There are no statistics available to back up this claim, but obviously it must be true or this might seem like some sort of colossal overreaction.

Now, there are many drivers who feel that having a GPS system in their vehicle is a necessity. Much more "user-friendly" and less distracting than its predecessors, the multi-paged atlas and the impossibly-folded road map, the GPS has made it possible for travelers to drive into unfamiliar areas with confidence and ease. No longer forced to squint at 4-pt font road names or extrapolate from under-detailed inset maps, drivers can now receive easy-to-follow instructions delivered in plain English (or local language), whether the destination is the San Diego Zoo, Grandma's house, or a quick drive off a cliff/into a lake.

Well, the NHTSA has decided that the GPS might possibly be too convenient, what with its moving display and modulated vocal instructions. According to the guidelines published in the VMNDDGIVED (Visual-Manual NHTSA Driver Distraction Guidelines for In-Vehicle Electronic Devices), GPS devices are welcome to act as co-pilot on your trip(s) so long as they don't do anything distracting -- like move, for instance.
Section V.5.b of the document titled Visual-Manual NHTSA Driver Distraction Guidelines for In-Vehicle Electronic Devices says that "Dynamic, continuously moving maps are not recommended."

The section, which deals with photographs or videos, says that static or near-static maps for the purpose of driving directions are acceptable. Near static is defined as being updated every few seconds.
Considering your vehicle is in motion, it obviously makes the most sense that your map wouldn't be. Updating "every few seconds" almost seems like it would be useful, but when you're driving in fast-moving traffic, a Rand McNally slideshow just isn't going to cut it. Those of us familiar with electronic devices would likely be prone to chalk this up to "lag" and take to the internets to bash the metropolitan area's "framerate."

But the NHTSA isn't done bricking your GPS. It actually has more suggestions!
Every current installed navigation system uses the car as a fixed point, and shows the map moving around it. NHTSA wants that changed so as to keep the map fixed. Even showing the position of the car moving on the map could be considered a dynamic image. The recommendation seems to suggest that the position of the car could only be updated every couple of seconds. Likewise, the map could be refreshed once the car has left the currently displayed area.
So, now drivers will be battling choppy framerates and the "fog of war driving." The previously-useful GPS system will be neutered into a "safe for driving" dashboard Rotoscope, offering directions moments after you need them and a view of the surrounding area just as you exit it. Somehow the NHTSA believes that this crippled technology would be better and less distracting for drivers.
[A]lthough NHTSA includes the results of driver distraction studies in the guidelines, it has no testing directly related to using a navigation system. Instead there are more general conclusions against any tasks that require looking at a device for periods of more than 2 seconds, or a series of glances that amount to more than 12 seconds at at time.

I would think that looking at a static map, and trying to find the particular street which you are on, would by much more time-consuming than seeing your exact position on a dynamic map.
But, wait! There's (oh dear god) more!
The NHTSA guidelines also conclude that drivers can not comprehend more than 30 characters of text with a quick glance. Here is an example of 30 characters of text: "The new NHTSA guidelines make navig".

Along with recommending that in-vehicle electronics display no more than 30 text characters at a time, the guidelines also take a position against scrolling text, so you could not read the rest of that sentence by having it roll on by.
The CNET post contains an image of an in-dash mp3 player which displays more than 30 characters, clearly violating these guidelines:
As Wayne Cunningham points out, the NHTSA thinks all drivers are hypnotized by the siren text of LCD screens.
Most people might merely glance down to read the current song title off the screen as they drive, but the NHTSA guidelines assume that when text is displayed, we drivers will be compelled to read all of it.
Now that we've got a better idea of how the NHTSA views the public (as compulsive morons), it explains why the agency feels compelled to handle every single aspect of driving. If all of these distractions are removed or rendered useless, traffic accidents will decrease astronomically, resulting in a new Golden Age of Driving, ushered in by the aggressive nannying of thousands of well-meaning bureaucrats. Of course, the NHTSA doesn't actually have much in the way of evidence to back up its heavy meddling, but that's so unsurprising I may as well have skipped writing this sentence at all:
The NHTSA document offers some figures that do not necessarily support the hours of work that must have been put in to come up with the guidelines. The document shows the number of accident reports for 2006 to 2010.

In 2010, the number of police-reported accidents amounted to 5,409,000. Of those, 17 percent were reportedly caused by driver distraction, an ample amount. However, only about half of one percent of the total crashes were caused by distraction from an in-vehicle system.
Let's give the NHTSA the benefit of a doubt. Let's say it's right, even though it has no evidence to back up its assertions. GPS systems are rendered useless but people still need directions. Here are two possibilities:
  • The return of the accordioned road map, unfolded across the lap/passenger seat, scanned quickly between swerves and curses by the not-distracted-at-all driver who only occasionally has to drag the whole works across the steering wheel to pinpoint the difference between 1st Street and 1st Ave. at 45 mph.
  • People turn to their smartphones, most of which have built-in GPS apps or have any number of them available to download. Instead of quickly glancing at a large screen at dashboard level, they'll be glancing furtively downward towards their non-driving hand in order to avoid being ticketed for Distracted Driving via Cellphone Usage.
Win-win! Or maybe the NHTSA could throw its weight behind something that might actually help, as Cunningham suggests:
My recommendation to NHTSA would be to spend its work hours drawing up a good driver training curriculum. Good, well-trained drivers are the best way to minimize the number of accidents.
It's so crazy, it might work.

Reader Comments

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  1. icon
    TheOldFart (profile), 29 Mar 2012 @ 10:42am

    Uh... call me crazy...

    ...but I always thought the word "Guidelines" (as used in the title of the document) meant "here are some things to consider in these situations".

    That gets followed by tirade upon tirade of doubtlessly bad drivers railing against being controlled and being forced to confront the existence of well established safety issues.

    People, they're guidelines, not laws. They've presented the information that they have in a manner they hope will help people make decisions. Maybe they went into too much detail, maybe they didn't clearly identify what was well established science and what is logical inference. That's no excuse for your hypersensitivity about your bad driving habits to suddenly explode on the interwebs.

    It's a fact that information overload from instruments causes distraction that leads to mistakes and accidents. It's something that affects airline and fighter pilots so if you're claiming that your "skillz" are superior to theirs, well, please excuse me while I snort some of my oatmeal out the left nostril.

    They're guidelines. They're meant to apply to the average person/average driver. It wasn't tailored for technologically astute and better-than-average education types that read TechDirt, though I wonder how good that education was when people go off on a tirade on such a small matter.

    At least stop crying about how some recommendations are going to render GPS "useless". There are technological solutions, like, oh, say allowing people to customize the display and have "inner city", "highway" and "walking" display modes or something insanely outrageous like that. Then people who want to follow the guidelines and reduce risk can do so without upsetting all of the thousands of "aces" driving their cars who demand to be free to drive in any manner they want regardless of the potential costs to others who are forced to share the highways with them.

    I use a GPS, both in car and on my motorcycle, and I use the dynamic display on it. I have the common sense to not try and read it when I'm riding 100+mph down a gravel road (which happens far more often than I would like my insurance agent to know) but my knowledge and self control does not somehow magically change the fact that it's better and safer to minimize the distractions for drivers and riders.

    I guess I have more confidence in my riding and driving skills than the complainers as I don't feel threatened in the least by evidence or logical inference. I simply take it into consideration and use it to make informed decisions.

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