The federal government is so worried about drivers being distracted by vehicle information systems that it is preparing to regulate the devices, perhaps even forcing automakers to ensure they won’t operate when cars are in gear.
The growing use of so-called telematics — which started with cellphones, but are now extending to computer screens offering navigation help and alarms that warn drivers when they’re straying out of their lanes — threatens road safety, Transport Canada warns in a discussion paper published in the Canada Gazette.
“Transport Canada is concerned that in-vehicle telematics devices are a threat to road safety because they increase driver distraction and will cause an increase in distraction-related crashes,” the paper says. Evidence is mounting that telematics are impairing drivers as they try to juggle between paying attention to the road and operating the devices, it says.
The concern is significant “because a lot of these systems are going into vehicles,” said the official heading the review.
Peter Burns, chief of ergonomics in Transport Canada’s road safety and motor vehicle regulation directorate, added that such devices “are currently pretty much only available on high-end models, but it’s not going to be too long before they are available in all vehicles. The functionality is just going to be limitless for what these systems will be able to do. So there is a huge potential for distraction.”
Many of the devices link up with cellphones.
The paper refers to research that found it took just four seconds to operate a car’s windshield wipers, but 20 to 30 seconds to dial a cellphone, while three of four navigation systems controlled by hand took one minute to operate, and 75 per cent of the driver’s time during that minute was spent looking away from the road.
The paper cites a study done in Britain that showed drivers talking on cellphones had significantly slower reaction times than even drunk drivers.
Rear-seat entertainment systems are not a concern, Transport Canada spokesman Dan Kingsbury said.
Regulation of telematics devices makes some sense, said Charlie Reid, a Toronto business consultant who spends much of his day on the road and relies heavily on his hands-free cellphone and other technology.
“Everything is becoming more and more connected all the time,” Mr. Reid said. “The voice of reason has to pop in at some point and say, ‘We have to limit this.’ ”
Hands-free cellphone systems, however, have improved so much in recent years that they are no more distracting than a passenger talking to the driver, he said. “To ban the use of cellphones, to me, is a step backwards for overall productivity.”
Provincial governments regulate cellphone use in automobiles, but so far, only Newfoundland has banned the use of hand-held cellphones while driving. A private member’s bill that would impose such a ban on Albertans was defeated last year, while a similar bill in Ontario put forward in 2001 has not been passed.
Ottawa is acting on telematics because the federal government is unhappy with what the auto industry has done so far on the issue, Transport Canada’s Mr. Burns said.
“Currently, manufacturers aren’t really doing much to ensure that these devices are safe as far as we know,” he said yesterday from Ottawa.
“There is no standard procedure for testing the devices to make sure they aren’t too distracting for the average driver. We are asking for their input on what current procedures they are using to ensure the devices are safe.”
Ottawa will seek comment from the public, the auto industry and others on several options, ranging from the status quo — which will likely be rejected — to voluntary agreements from automakers on how the devices would operate to banning open-architecture systems or disabling the devices when vehicles are in gear.
Mr. Burns noted that during a U.S. public forum in 2000 on driver distraction, the auto industry promised voluntary guidelines.
“They are up to their third version of that now and neither ourselves or [the U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration] are satisfied with what they have come up with,” he said.
The federal government regulates what goes into the car when it’s manufactured, but not components that are added later.
“That’s another reason why we are doing this, is that we do have some control over these systems, we don’t have any control over cellphones, so we are trying to influence what we have control over,” Mr. Burns said.
By GREG KEENAN AND PAUL WALDIE
Globe and Mail Update