The top U.S. transportation safety investigator said companies such as Intel Corp. that are investing in in-car information technology are slowing efforts to reduce hazards from distracted driving.
"If the technology producers focused more on what is safe than what sells, we'd see highway fatalities go down," National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said in an emailed statement today, as she convened a distracted-driving forum in Washington.
Distracted driving caused by handheld and other electronics in cars has been the top safety priority of Ray LaHood since he became U.S. transportation secretary in 2009. Hersman, whose board operates independently, in December went further than LaHood, calling for a ban on all phone use while driving, even with hands-free devices.
"We have got to dispel the myth of multi-tasking," Hersman said at the forum. "We are still learning what the human brain can handle. What is the price of our desire to be mobile and connected at the same time?"
Intel, the world's largest maker of semiconductors and computer chips, said last month it is expanding development of in-vehicle infotainment using its technology and its capital unit is creating a $100 million "connected car fund."
John Lee, a University of Wisconsin professor who has studied distracted driving, cited the Intel announcement at the forum as an example of companies focusing on adding technology to cars.
"The pace of change is daunting," he said in testimony to the safety board, citing himself as an example of a distracted driver who has scrolled through a music playlist and taken his eyes off the road. "The pace of change far outstrips the pace of regulatory response."
Intel's work on automotive technologies will include finding ways to make such systems safer, Laura Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Clara, California-based company, said in an email.
"Intel is working closely with automakers and in-vehicle infotainment suppliers to help integrate advanced technologies into cars to enhance the in-vehicle experience as well as advanced driver assistance systems," she said. "A significant area of focus for the $100 million Intel Capital connected car fund is to accelerate innovation for driver and passenger safety. For example, the fund will invest in startups developing technologies for advanced driver assistance, gesture recognition and sensors."
The Transportation Department last month issued voluntary guidelines for automakers for built-in systems used for infotainment and navigation. The guidelines recommend that no task for drivers take longer than two seconds and that cars be stopped and in park before drivers can enter navigation commands or use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
The safety board, which determines causes of crashes in all modes of transportation, hasn't investigated any accidents where navigation systems were found to be a cause, Hersman said at the news conference.
The Association of Global Automakers, a Washington-based group whose members include Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., will tell the safety board later today that anti- distracted-driving initiatives should be based on data.
"When integrating the convenience features demanded by today's consumers, factors such as safety, usability and comprehension are all considered," Michael Cammisa, Global Automakers' safety director, said in a statement. "Our members take a measured approach when designing a vehicle and deciding what features to include."
In 2010, 3,092 people, or 9.4 percent of road fatalities, were killed in crashes related to driver distraction, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.