Feds confront gray area on distracted driving regulation
Officials unsure who can set rules
Strickland: Legal issues are murky
Federal officials' crusade against distracted driving faces a major snag: U.S. regulators are unsure who can set rules on how cell phones are used behind the wheel.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is limited to regulating vehicle equipment, not mobile devices brought in by occupants. The Federal Communications Commission has authority over mobile phones but doesn't deal with the risks of their use in vehicles.
"There is actually a regulatory doughnut hole," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland, speaking last month in Detroit.
The agency has some authority if the cell phone has a vehicle-specific app, such as one that controls door locks, he said. NHTSA also can regulate the software and hardware that connects vehicles and cell phones. "But we can't regulate it as a phone," Strickland said.
It's unclear which federal regulatory agency, if any, has the power to restrict cell phone use on the road, such as requiring a lock-out feature that disables certain functions while the vehicle is moving, Strickland said. But it's a policy question Congress eventually will have to settle, he said.
For now, the regulatory ambiguity means automakers and suppliers are free to use their best judgment to give customers what they want without interference from U.S. regulators.
It also puts a kink in U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's signature safety effort: cracking down on unsafe cell phone use while driving. While LaHood has made the effort a priority, his department lacks the authority to impose federal restrictions.
States have the power to limit in-vehicle cell phone use. So far, 37 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that ban drivers from texting.
In February, NHTSA proposed guidelines for the industry that seek to limit in-car distractions on displays and controls. The agency also has called on automakers to disable some built-in technologies, such as Web browsers and access to social media unless a vehicle is pulled off the road.
But the guidelines are voluntary and cover only factory-installed equipment -- not the phones themselves.
As a next step, NHTSA says it is studying the risks of mobile phone use on the road and expects to release its findings this year.
But given the agency's regulatory limitations, it is unclear what NHTSA will do with its findings. Along with the FCC, the Consumer Product Safety Commission also regulates mobile phones and can issue safety recalls, but its oversight ends with the product itself.
"We have all different safety authorities, but none of them deal with a mobile phone that effectively becomes motor vehicle equipment but isn't natively motor vehicle equipment," Strickland said.
He said he does not care who ends up with the authority, but he has testified before Congress urging federal lawmakers to decide.
"I do think it would serve clarity for every manufacturer, both vehicle and otherwise," Strickland said. "It's good manufacturing policy. It's good safety policy."
Falling into the doughnut hole are some features becoming increasingly popular, such as technology that allows drivers to dock phones and control apps using car buttons and screens.
Auto industry officials say they are careful to display information safely and have developed industrywide guidelines to limit distraction.
But restricting in-car technology and not the phones is like "fencing in three sides of a yard," said a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group representing 12 automakers including Toyota, Volkswagen and the Detroit 3.
"You may inadvertently make people more reliant on their hand-helds," he said.
Roger Lanctot, a technology analyst with Strategy Analytics, said auto safety regulators are in a tough position.
"They can only badger and cajole at this point," Lanctot said. To get authority, "they would need some legislative cover."
But Lanctot said that with this being an election year, Congress is unlikely to tackle the matter, especially given the formidable lobbying muscle of the telecom and auto industries.
He added: "They need help from Capitol Hill, but I don't foresee that happening anytime soon."
• National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: Oversees vehicle equipment, phone-to-vehicle connections
• Federal Communications Commission: Regulates mobile phone operation and networks
• Consumer Product Safety Commission: Watches out for product risks, issues safety recalls