US proposes a phone 'driver mode' to reduce in-car distractions

The NHTSA wants simplified interfaces when you're on the road.

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Getty Images/iStockphoto
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Smartphones already have car-optimized interfaces like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and you'll occasionally see safety measures that shut off features (and enable others) while you're driving. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants to do better. It's proposing voluntary guidelines that would both encourage phone makers to both include pairing with infotainment systems (much like Android Auto and CarPlay) and, crucially, a "driving mode" that cuts back on distractions. It would have a simpler interface that minimizes the time you spend looking away from the road, and either disables or downplays features that you don't need while on the move.

Specifically, officials would like the driving mode to disable "manual text entry" (think keyboards), photo and video playback, non-essential text, social networking and the web. Don't expect it to automatically kick in, though. While the agency would like the mode to launch whenever you're moving faster than a crawling pace (5MPH), it knows that it's difficult to tell the difference between a driver and a passenger. You may have to invoke it yourself until technology catches up, and there would be an override if there's an app you simply have to use.

These aren't binding guidelines, and they're really just the second phase of an NHTSA effort to reduce distractions in the infotainment systems themselves. However, the proposal's very existence could prompt Apple, Google and others to make anti-distraction features key to their platforms even in those cases where the phone can't link to your car. After all, they don't want to be seen as promoting dangerous behavior behind the wheel -- a driving mode is as much a marketing point as it is a safety measure.

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