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Map apps may get federal oversight

NEW YORK — Getting directions on the road from Google Maps and other smartphone apps is a popular alternative to the expensive navigation aids included in some cars. The apps are also a gray area when it comes to laws banning the use of cellphones or texting while driving.

The Transportation Department wants to enter the debate. It is intensifying its battle against distracted driving by seeking explicit authority from Congress to regulate navigation aids of all types.

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The measure, in the Obama administration’s proposed transportation bill, would specify that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can set restrictions on the apps, and later order changes if they are deemed dangerous, much the way it currently regulates mechanical features of cars.

The measure has the support of automakers, which already mostly comply with voluntary guidelines for built-in navigation systems, but it has run into stiff opposition from technology companies, which say that any such law would be impractical and impossible to enforce. It’s another example, they say, of federal regulators trying vainly to keep up with a rapidly changing industry.

“They don’t have enough software engineers,” said Catherine McCullough, executive director of the Intelligent Car Coalition, an industry group. “They don’t have the budget or the structure to oversee both Silicon Valley and the auto industry.”

The underlying issue has already worked its way into the courts. In California, Steven R. Spriggs got a $165 ticket for using his iPhone while driving in stop-and-go traffic near Fresno. A highway patrol officer rolled up alongside his car after seeing the glow from the screen on Spriggs’s face.

“I held it up and said, ‘It’s a map,’ ” Spriggs said. He was not talking on the phone, which is barred by California law. But the officer would not budge. “He said, ‘Pull over, it doesn’t matter,’ ” said Spriggs.

An appeals court ruled it did matter, and Spriggs’s conviction was reversed.

Regulators maintain they already have the authority over navigation aids, and merely want it clearly written into law.

Twice last year, David L. Strickland, when he was administrator of NHTSA, told Congress that navigation systems could be “classified as motor vehicle equipment.” The electronics industry, in response, argues that “motor vehicle equipment” includes objects like key-chain fobs that can unlock a car by remote control, not apps on a smartphone.

Last year, after negotiations with the industry, the Transportation Department released voluntary guidelines for automakers stipulating that any navigation system should not take more than two seconds for a single interaction, and 12 seconds total. At 60 miles an hour, two seconds is 172 feet.

Now the Transportation Department is angling for more leverage, but it says it has no immediate plan to issue rules. The idea is now in the mix of proposals that could end up in the highway bill.

Regulators are making the push as navigation apps are proliferating and increasing in sophistication.

While most smartphone users are familiar with straightforward navigation aids like Google Maps, Waze, for instance, relies on a social network of users to report road conditions and the presence of police cars in real time. Wazers, as users are known, earn points the more they contribute, and gain status in the community.

But Waze’s user agreement contains a warning that says, in part, “Sending traffic updates and text messages to the service while you drive is strictly prohibited.”

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