The industrywide plug-and-play standards for electronic products and services mean that automobiles soon will be home to more entertainment and communications gadgets than Dick Tracy could have imagined. But just as engineers hammered out common technical electronic standards for the installation of the hardware, automakers must establish and adhere to standards that will ensure the safe use of the new devices.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration already has shown some interest in the issue of driver distraction as it relates to cellular phones. It now looks like there will be a further hearing, probably in June, and the scope of the hearing will be expanded to include other devices.
The Society of Automotive Engineers and other groups also have studied distractions. Head-up displays and voice-operated devices are some of the suggested solutions. The industry must be decisive and responsible because lives are at stake.
When a driver slides behind the wheel, the first priority is - and must remain - safe operation of the vehicle. Automakers should emphasize that as they market these devices. The alternative might be a backlash against the technology.
Some of us used to drive around unbelted with the radio blasting, a cigarette in one hand and an arm around our best girl, but most of us know better than that now. We also should know the dangers of eating or phoning or having a cup of coffee or fiddling with a CD player or adjusting a GPS system while we're behind the wheel. Multiply that by an Internet hookup, a fax machine and a DVD player, and it becomes clear that there must be some order in the cockpit.
If the industry doesn't develop a responsible position, with which all automakers comply, you can bet the government will impose something worse.
Automakers must show social leadership now.