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Distracted Driving Rules: Transportation Department Proposes Guidelines Limiting Technology Built Into Cars

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By John Crawley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration wants limits on vehicle features that allow drivers to text and make cellphone calls while the car is moving, the centerpiece of a broader effort to curb distracted driving.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood proposed voluntary steps for automakers on Thursday that would establish new safety criteria for hands-free calling, navigation, and entertainment systems that have become common in new cars and trucks.

The guidelines are mainly an attempt to reach younger drivers, who are the most inexperienced and whose daily lives are most influenced by wireless technology.

"Distracted driving is a dangerous and deadly habit on America's roadways -- that's why I've made it a priority to encourage people to stay focused behind the wheel," LaHood said.

The latest government figures show that roughly 10 percent of U.S. traffic deaths in 2010, or 3,092 people, were linked to distracted driving.

Most states ban texting while driving but fewer than a dozen prohibit any cell phone use by a motorist. Congress has shown no interest in limiting either practice.

The Transportation Department guidelines introduced on Thursday recommend that automakers adopt technology to disable distracting electronic systems that are accessible to the driver -- but not passengers -- when a car is moving.

This would cover text messaging, Internet browsing, and access to social media.

The proposal is a compromise for LaHood, who stopped short of ordering that General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co, Fiat SpA's Chrysler Group LLC and other manufacturers restrict hands-free and other dashboard advances popular with consumers and key selling points in new vehicles.

Automakers said through their lead Washington trade group, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, that they would review the government's proposal. But they said elements of it borrow from industry practices established more than a decade ago.

Moreover, they said that hands-free technology is designed to help drivers keep their eyes on the road.

"Consumers expect to have access to new technology, so integrating and adapting this technology to enable safe driving is the solution," the group said in a statement.

The proposed Transportation Department guidelines are subject to a 60-day public comment period. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will hold hearings in March in Los Angeles, Washington and Chicago.

(Reporting by John Crawley; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Gerald E. McCormick)

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