DETROIT -- The U.S. Department of Transportation today released its long-awaited guidelines on distracted driving, calling on automakers to disable applications that allow drivers to manually access social media, surf the Web or send text messages while on the road.
The recommendations also seek to prevent any in-car technologies that require drivers to use both hands or take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds.
"Increasingly, data shows that as technology evolves, cell phones aren't the only potential distraction in vehicles," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has made distracted driving his signature safety issue.
"Many carmakers are now developing in-vehicle electronic systems that can give directions, post to social networking sites and search the Internet."
Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the trade group is generally supportive of the agency's guidelines.
"They're based on guidelines we developed 10 years ago," Bergquist said. But they also go further to address other emerging technologies, such as those involving social media, she added.
But the Alliance, which represents 12 major carmakers, is concerned that the disability technology won't be well received by consumers, Bergquist said.
Drivers who can't access access applications on their dashboards will just revert to calling them up on their handheld devices, she added.
"If you can't put an address into GPS while moving, then you'll just use your handheld Garmin," Bergquist said.
The guidelines are voluntary, meaning automakers won't be penalized or suffer a safety downgrade if they don't comply.
In crafting the guidelines, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said the agency met with a "countless" number of stakeholders, including carmakers and independent research groups.
The agency chose to make compliance optional to give regulators more flexibility in keeping with the pace of fast-evolving technologies.
Strickland added that the agency hopes automakers will make compliance with the guidelines a selling point to consumers, as they do with other safety ratings.
The public will have a chance to comment on the guidelines over the next 60 days. NHTSA will also hold three public hearings in Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles in March.
In 2010, distracted driving deaths totaled 3,092, but NHTSA believes the total could be higher because drivers are often unwilling to admit to the behavior and many crashes lack witnesses.
While other auto industry trade groups have published their own safety guidelines for in-car technologies, NHTSA wants to broaden the scope to include emerging apps for social media, and better define what constitutes a distracted driving task.
The agency is working on a study to determine the hazards of in-vehicle phone use and is looking at hand-held and hands-free devices. It plans to release its analysis late next year.
Still, some safety advocates feel the agency's guidelines don't go far enough.
The National Transportation Safety Board issued a proposal in December calling for all states to outlaw cell phone use, including use of hands-free devices, while driving.
The proposal is far tougher than restrictions put in place by many states banning hand-held calls or texting and could put technologies that promote hands-free calling behind the wheel at risk.
While LaHood said he appreciates NTSB's efforts, the agency is still studying the risks of driving while using hands-free devices. LaHood said in December he didn't believe "hands-free" was the problem.
"Before we go too much further," LaHood said, "I want to see what the studies we're doing on the cognitive distractions on some of these technologies."