Monday, July 8, 2013

UN agencies take major step towards international standards for driver distraction

June 27 marked a historic event in Geneva, Switzerland — an event that could ultimately lead to internationally harmonized vehicle regulations and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) standards to address driver distraction.

The event was a workshop titled "Intelligent transport systems in emerging markets — drivers for safe and sustainable growth". The title may sound innocuous, but don’t let that fool you. It only touches the surface of what was really going on.

So what, exactly, made this event so important? It was the first joint meeting of the United Nations (UN) agencies that deal with automotive regulations and ICT standards/radio spectrum allocation: the UNECE World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (UNECE WP.29) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), respectively. During the opening of the workshop, Eva Molnar (director, UNECE Transport Division) and Malcolm Johnson (director, ITU Telecommunication Standardization Bureau) spoke about the historic significance of this event and how they hoped it would be the beginning of a close collaboration.

This is big news. The possibility of vehicle regulations by the UNECE WP.29 may force automakers to work with the ITU, which has been working to develop comprehensive, internationally agreed standards to address driver distraction caused by mobile devices and other ICTs. Previous attempts such as the ITU-T Focus Group on Driver Distraction (FG Distraction) have had only limited success at engaging the automotive industry. See the FG Distraction reports for more information on the current state of such comprehensive standards.

Not if, but when
Regulation of ICTs could also occur. Strictly speaking, ITU-T Recommendations are non-binding, but they can become mandatory if referenced in a regulation by a national authority such as the FCC in the US. Increasing pressure to regulate use of ICTs in vehicles and the likely harmonization of ITU-T Recommendations with UNECE WP.29 vehicle regulations make regulations based on ITU-T Recommendations a real possibility.

Regulation of automotive and ICT equipment used by drivers isn’t a question of "if", but of "when". That said, many paths could lead to such regulation, some better than others. For example, authorities could jump the gun and issue regulations before good solutions are in place — and actually make the situation worse. With that in mind, let's hope that the step taken on June 27 is the first of many down a path that leads us to internationally harmonized standards and regulations that truly address unsafe driver interaction with ICTs.

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