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Social media and cars: Do we need this? Add to ...

It’s been about a month since the U.S. Transportation Department implored auto makers to design in-car infotainment systems so that Facebook and Twitter functions would be disabled in a moving vehicle, but the whole premise behind it is an ongoing debate.

Not that there should be much to debate. The U.S. government’s stance on the issue flies in the face of what auto makers have been doing the last few years. Facebook and Twitter integration was touted as an evolutionary achievement for in-car infotainment at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show and the subsequent auto shows last year, but who was actually demanding these features, and why?

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Facebook may be nice for socializing and Twitter has proven useful as a veritable RSS feed of news, gossip and musings from anyone and everyone, but how does all that translate into a useful – and ultimately safe – experience behind the wheel?

In my experience, it doesn’t.

Texting while driving is already considered a hazard. That’s why there are apps and services that allow you to listen to or dictate a text or use a canned response to let recipients know you’re driving. There are also a growing number of apps and services that disable everything but emergency phone calls in a moving car. These aren’t perfect solutions, but they help.

The thing about texting is that it’s usually a very brief line or two in response to one or two others. This is part of the reason why drivers feel they can do it without worrying. But Facebook and Twitter have a litany of posts filled with links, photos and video coming from a wide range of sources. What would be the point of even paying attention to any of that while driving? Breaking news stories could easily be picked up by tuning to a news radio station.

Of course, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood doesn’t just have a bone to pick with social networks in the car, he wants auto makers to disable manual texting, Internet browsing, 10-digit phone dialing and entering addresses into a built-in navigation system for drivers unless the car is in park.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Canadian government has been slow to take up a position, largely because hands-free and distracted driving laws fall under provincial jurisdictions. State laws in the United States only pertain to mobile devices, not in-car integrated systems, so if a car manufacturer opted to include a running Facebook or Twitter feed in its system, there’s technically no law against it.

But there should be. If Facebook, in particular, is considered a distraction at an office desk, shouldn’t that precedent apply to behind the wheel as well?

The chances that auto makers will allow drivers to access either social network while driving are probably slim, given the legal implications that could come from a collision, but it’s just as likely that they’ll throw them in for those times the car is in park. Even the governments in the Canada and the U.S. might not balk at that.

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