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Tesla under investigation over ‘Passenger Play’ in-dash gaming feature

Distracted driving continues to grow, and states are partnering with federal regulators to slow it down

Tesla vehicle and dealership
Photo (c) AdrianHancu - Getty Images
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has moved forward with an investigation over concerns that various Tesla models allow passengers to play video games on the front center touchscreen while the vehicle is in motion. 

In a document released Tuesday, the agency said it is opening a “preliminary evaluation” to evaluate the potential of Tesla drives being distracted by "Passenger Play" while the vehicle is being driven. In its evaluation, the NHTSA will assess aspects of the feature, including the frequency and use scenarios of the feature. 

Tesla is the second automaker in as many months to catch the ire of the NHTSA. In November, Mercedes-Benz recalled 227 U.S. vehicles because the vehicle infotainment systems "might allow activation of the television and internet display while driving, causing a distraction for the driver."

NHTSA playing it safe

While none of the Tesla models have yet to register a fatality or an injury – and the game screen displays a warning that “Playing while the car is in motion is only for passengers” – the lone complaint the NHTSA received was enough to raise concern for the safety of all Tesla owners. 

In that complaint, the gameplay functionality was confirmed and shown to be available in Tesla vehicles with “Passenger Play” from December 2020. Prior to that, gameplay was enabled only when the vehicle was parked.

The agency document raised another concern – that no matter what visual warnings the game displays, a driver can still game the system by confirming that they are a passenger simply by pressing a button.

Distracted driving concerns continue

Eating and driving, texting and driving, applying makeup, taking photos – no matter what the distraction is, more than half of a recent study’s respondents admitted to doing something that kept them from having their eyes on the road. In 2019, 3,142 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers.

Over the last eight years, the NHTSA has been on a crusade to get automakers "to factor safety and driver distraction-prevention into their designs and adoption of infotainment devices in vehicles." 

Many drivers are likely unaware that state legislatures have laws regarding distracted driving already on the books. All told, 29 states and territories forbid drivers from using handheld cell phones and 53 prohibit texting while driving. All are primary enforcement laws — an officer may cite a driver for using a handheld cell phone without any other traffic offense taking place.

For complete details on where drivers can be cited for distracted driving, a complete state-by-state list is available here.

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