In-car technologies may provide new opportunities for distracted driving

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New technologies introduced at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas offer drivers an immersive technological experience but may raise the risk of distraction behind the wheel

Distracted driving has come into sharp focus in recent months, due to the increased prevalence of handheld devices in Americans' pockets and purses. While talking on cell phones has been popular since the first car phones in the 1980s, texting while driving - which has the potential to be far more dangerous - is a new phenomenon.

Teenagers, already inexperienced and potentially dangerous drivers, report that they text while driving more than any other age group. Pew's Internet & American Life Project estimates that 26 percent of 16- to 17-year-olds text while driving; 48 percent of teens say they've observed someone else doing it.

According to a study from Virginia Tech, texting increases risky driving by a factor of 23. The insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that drivers using handheld devices - either texting or talking behind the wheel - are four times more likely to get in a crash that causes injury.

The federal government recognizes the risk of distracted driving: Department of Transportation secretary Ray LaHood convened in September a summit on the dangers of talking and texting while driving. In recent weeks, the DOT and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rolled out a website,, devoted solely to educating people about the perils of distracted driving.

Recognizing that a trend was afoot, Webster's New World College Dictionary even dubbed "distracted driving" the Word of the Year for 2009.

Despite a cascade of media coverage in 2009, though, distracted driving is still commonplace. The technologies introduced at CES may only further the trend, though automakers say they've built safety into their in-car electronics.

Audi, for example, introduced at CES a feature on its high-end A8 sedan that would let drivers browse the internet from behind the wheel. Ford's similar system, called MyFord, only permits internet use when a car is stationary. MyFord also includes two small computer screens - one in the gauge cluster and one at the top of the dashboard - to help drivers monitor their cars' performance and control the climate system.

Jim Buczkowski, Ford's director of global electrical and electronics systems engineering, said to the New York Times that Ford was "trying to make [the] driving experience ... very engaging." He added that the company "[wanted] to make sure it is safer and safer."

Cars are poised to become the most immersive electronics experience available, Nvidia general manager Michael Rayfield suggested to the newspaper. Over 70 million vehicles are sold worldwide each year, making the market potentially lucrative for computer chip makers like Nvidia and software companies like Microsoft.

Microsoft's highly touted Sync system is available in most Ford vehicles today. It adds only a few hundred dollars to the cost of a new car and allows music players and Bluetooth-equipped cell phones to connect wirelessly to the in-car entertainment system. But, compared to the new technologies that are being introduced this week, Sync is fairly simple.

MyFord has two U.S.B. ports and permits the use of a keyboard, making it close in capability to a desktop computer.

But is an in-car computer what drivers need, given that they're already distracted by cell phones? Secretary LaHood said to the Times that he would "speak out against" the increased prevalence of distracting technologies in American cars.

Still, it will be hard for tech-obsessed drivers to ignore the features offered by new technologies. Whether they increase accidents remains to be seen.

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Posted: January 7, 2010

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