Federal safety regulators took a small step in the right direction this month when they published guidelines to minimize the distractions of the connected car.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tacitly endorsed voice communication as a safe way to keep a driver's hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.
Among other things, it stipulated that any infotainment app that is activated by hand should require motorists to take their eyes off the road no more than two seconds at a time.
So NHTSA largely endorsed the industry's current practices, which is fine. Automakers and suppliers can proceed with reasonable assurance that their devices and apps will meet regulatory approval.
But the industry is still a long way from solving the thorniest aspect of driver distraction: mental distraction.
Voice technology theoretically could evolve to the point that drivers rarely take their eyes off the road to hear weather reports, find restaurants or listen to e-mails.
But let's say a teenage driver hears from his girlfriend via an e-mail that she is dumping him. The connected car has just created a distracted driver, guaranteed, even if his hands have never left the wheel.
Here's the tricky part: Distractions from communications devices cannot be eliminated. But if regulators restrict the connected car too much, some drivers will simply use their smartphones directly to stay connected -- whether or not it's illegal in their state.
That is the most dangerous option. A motorist who juggles a handset with one hand while steering with the other might as well be driving drunk.
So NHTSA's challenge is to walk a delicate line that provides drivers a safe connection to the Internet -- without tempting them to use their smartphones instead.