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Is Acura’s dashboard SMS text feature dangerous? Does it cause distracted driving?

July 10, 2013 by Steven M. Gursten

Auto makers have been loading up certain higher end vehicles with built-in dashboard features. These dashboard features enable drivers to multitask on the road. But are the engineers moving forward by incorporating ever more dangerous technology in cars without consulting the lawyers and human factors experts?

One particularly dangerous new option is a dashboard texting function, like the “SMS Text Message Function” being rolled out by Acura. According to Acura’s website:

“Acura has redirected the temptation to engage in hand-held texting with an integrated SMS text message function. This function allows you to respond to incoming text messages in a manner that helps mitigate any potential driver distraction.”

Here’s how it works:

  • When driving with a paired, activated, SMS-compatible phone, the system will notify the driver of an incoming text message.
  • The system will ask the driver if he wants it to “read” the message to him.
  • After the message is read aloud, the driver can use the center display to select six pre-prepared responses, including: Talk to you later, I’m driving; I’m on my way; I’m running late; OK; Yes; No.
  • The system also gives the driver the option to call the person who sent the text.
  • State or local laws may limit use of texting feature.

Although Acura states that its text messaging feature “mitigates any potential driver distraction,” our auto lawyers and the emerging science would indicate otherwise. It confuses driver distraction with a driver using a handheld phone, and it assumes that driver distraction is eliminated because text messaging is occurring without using a handheld device. But a driver still has to listen to the text message being read, and then focus his eyes on the response message choices being displayed in the center of the dashboard.

Consider the results from the new  “Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile,”  study conducted by the AAA Foundation For Traffic Safety:

When compared to other distractions such as talking on a cell-phone (hand-held or hands-free), listening to the radio, or talking with a passenger, a driver’s use of “a speech-to-text system to send and receive text or e-mail messages” was the “most cognitively distracting.”

The  federal government also seems to take issue with Acura’s statement, and is asking automakers to curb dashboard distractions, including SMS text messages, phone calls and web surfing. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently proposed voluntary guidelines for manufacturers, including a recommendation that they design dashboards so that distracting devices are automatically disabled, unless the vehicle is stopped and the transmission is in park, according to an Associated Press article, “An ‘arcade’ of dashboard distraction: Concerns lead to calls for car design changes.”

Said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland: “The guidelines we’re proposing would offer real-world guidance to automakers to help them develop electronic devices that provide features consumers want without disrupting a driver’s attention or sacrificing safety.”

Dashboard technologies recommended for automatic disabling include text-messaging, Internet browsing, social media browsing, phone dialing and computer screen messages of 30 characters or more that are unrelated to driving.

The NHTSA decided to pursue voluntary guidelines so action could be taken quickly, as the process for writing federal rules often takes years to complete, said  Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a published report. The guidelines are also a way “to continue the drumbeat” that distracted driving is a serious safety issue that costs lives, LaHood said.

So although Acura and other automakers aiming to sell more cars to busy drivers might purport that their SMS features are not a form of distracted driving, there’s certainly more to the story. Driver distraction is driver distraction, and  texting while driving on a handheld or hands-free using a center console of a car can both be deadly.

Remember, drivers who are texting are 23 times more likely to crash, and one-quarter of all cell phone crashes involve cell phones.

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