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Feds to automakers: Block drivers' tweets, texts, surfing

The U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed guidelines that would limit driving activities to, well, driving.

Several states around the U.S. have enacted laws limiting what people can do while driving, but for the first time, the federal government is proposing guidelines all drivers would need to live by.

The Department of Transportation yesterday announced a set of auto-technology guidelines, issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), that would limit the functionality of electronic devices installed in vehicles.

The organization says car makers should not allow drivers to text message, surf the Web, access social networks, or even manually input an address destination into a GPS device, unless the vehicle is in park. External devices that are not built into the car are not covered under the proposed guidelines.

"We recognize that vehicle manufacturers want to build vehicles that include the tools and conveniences expected by today's American drivers," NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said yesterday in a statement. "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."

The fight to end distracted driving has been underway for years. Some states, like New York and California, have made it illegal for drivers to text or talk on the phone while driving, unless they have hands-free equipment. Others states, however, have not gone so far. Florida, for example, places no restrictions on drivers. The state has a "preemption law" in place that "prohibits localities from enacting distracted driving bans."

The NHTSA argues that distracted drivers have the reaction time of a person who is at the legal limit for drunk driving. Drivers who text, the NHTSA says, are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash than those who put their phones down.

That statistic becomes all the more sobering when one considers a survey Consumer Reports conducted last year, revealing that 30 percent of drivers under the age of 30 text behind the wheel, and 63 percent of them used a cell phone while driving in the 30 days prior to survey.

Although the NHTSA is now trying to do something to address that, it's unlikely many of those people are using smartphones that can be controlled by their car's internal components. Bluetooth connectivity aside, few cars have strong links with smartphones.

However, the NHTSA says it will unveil phase II guidelines at some point in the future, which will address "devices or systems that are not built into the vehicle but are brought into the vehicle and used while driving."

One other note from the NHTSA's guidelines: it wants to force car makers to find ways to limit clutter around the driver's field of vision and reduce the duration of off-road glances to no more than two seconds.

The NHTSA's guidelines are now available to the public. The organization will hold hearings in March in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. to "solicit comment." The government will publish final guidelines after the public has commented.