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Auto Safety Regulators Seek a Driver Mode to Block Apps


Highway safety administrators are increasingly concerned about distractions posed by smartphones and the apps that Americans use while behind the wheel. Credit Fabrizio Costantini for The New York Times

Apple iPhones and other hand-held devices have long had an airplane mode that shuts off wireless communications to prevent interference with the vast electronics systems that control modern aircraft.

Now federal auto safety regulators want makers of these devices to add a driver mode to modify or block certain apps and features to keep a driver’s attention on the road.

The initiative comes in the form of voluntary guidelines that will be issued Wednesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They arrive amid a spike in traffic fatalities in the last two years and increasing concerns about the distractions posed by smartphones and the many apps that Americans are using while behind the wheel.

“Your smartphone becomes so many different things that it’s not just a communication device,” Anthony Foxx, secretary of the Transportation Department, said in an interview. “Distraction is still a problem. Too many people are dying and being injured on our roadways.”

The guidelines call on electronics manufacturers like Apple and Samsung to design future operating systems that limit the functionality and simplify interfaces while a vehicle is in motion and to develop technology to identify when the devices are being used by a driver while driving. That would ensure the limits are placed on drivers and not other vehicle occupants.

The new guidelines from N.H.T.S.A. are the agency’s first recommendations specifically for portable devices that are used while driving. The agency cannot force electronics companies to comply, but in the past it issued a set of guidelines for the navigation and entertainment systems built into cars by the manufacturer and carmakers adopted them, for the most part.

The airplane mode has been around about as long as smartphones. The Federal Aviation Administration had required turning off electronics before takeoff, but that rule was relaxed to allow the use of smartphones in flight as long as they had their communications shut off. That led to airplane mode, which the iPhone had in 2007.

“Unfortunately, there are varying degrees of recognition in the tech community that when you’re building an app or a smartphone, or contemplating usage, there’s a strong possibility that someone could be trying to use that in the driver’s seat,” Mr. Foxx said.

In the first six months of 2016, highway deaths increased 10.4 percent, to 17,775, according to preliminary data compiled by N.H.T.S.A. At that rate, more than 100 people die every day in traffic accidents. In 2015, traffic fatalities rose 7.1 percent; it was the largest annual percentage increase in traffic deaths in 50 years.

Part of the increase in road deaths can be explained by the improving economy, higher employment numbers and low gasoline prices, all of which are causing Americans to drive more than they did just a few years ago, during the depths of the recession.

In an interview in October, Mark Rosekind, the N.H.T.S.A. administrator, said the increase in miles traveled was not enough by itself to explain this spike in crashes, injuries and deaths. Indeed, fatalities are occurring more frequently even when the increased travel is factored in.

Mr. Rosekind and other safety experts think one factor is distracted driving. In their view, distractions and the allure of smartphones, other devices and in-car electronics have multiplied greatly since the dangers of distracted driving entered the national consciousness years ago.

At that time, the main phone-related distracting activities were texting and talking on the phone. Now a wide range of apps and games also tempt drivers to reach for their phones.

Niantic, the maker of Pokémon Go, recently modified the game to prevent it from operating while moving at speeds of more than about 10 miles per hour, a spokeswoman for the company said. She declined to give further details on the modifications because Niantic did not want users to find ways to get around them, she said.

The change was made after a spate of accidents was blamed on drivers who were playing the game while at the wheel.

“I don’t think Pokémon Go is something any driver should be using at any speed,” Mr. Foxx said.

Makers of smartphones have added some technology that can be used to reduce the distraction of electronics. Apple’s iPhones have a do not disturb feature that can block incoming calls and texts, and a silent mode that eliminates the chimes and other audio cues that signal the arrival of a new message or posting on Facebook.

Many carmakers now include Apple’s CarPlay software in their newest models. When an iPhone is connected to the vehicle via CarPlay, the software limits the apps drivers can use to Apple Maps, the music service Pandora and others that are used while traveling. Drivers can have the system read new texts aloud and dictate responses.

There are apps and other products that can be used to block incoming communications in cars. One called DriveSafe Mode lets parents monitor if a child’s phone is used for texting or email while in a vehicle.

The guidelines encourage smartphone makers to ensure their devices pair up with in-car electronics so drivers can use their steering-wheel buttons and in-dash screen to control apps.

A driver mode would present a simplified interface and detect when the device is being used by a driver. In this mode, a smartphone would block any video or distracting graphics; eliminate scrolling text; and prohibit keypad use for texting or email. Any social media content or content from web pages like news reports should be blocked as well, the guidelines say.

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