Inattention at the wheel: It's so much more than cell phones
Friday, August 23rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ Gone are the good old days of distracted driving, when motorists merely juggled coffee, shaved, read a map, drove with a pet in the lap and lit cigarettes. Millions of Americans are taking traditional driver absent-mindedness to new heights.
They're talking on cell phones, sending and receiving pages, checking sports scores on personal digital assistants and even sneaking a glance or two at television. The much-maligned cell phone, experts say, is just the tip of the iceberg.
In California, which has long defined American car culture, commute-weary drivers are adding VCR and DVD players, fax machines and dashboard video screens for satellite navigation systems.
The blurring line between the office and the driver's seat is raising new fears among authorities, lawmakers and insurance companies as more people are literally driven to distraction.
Nationally, officials believe up to 30 percent of crashes are caused by driver distractions that include mobile communications devices.
A March report by the National Conference of State Legislatures suggests device-related distractions that killed an estimated 600 to 1,000 motorists in 2001 could kill 2,000 a year by 2004.
``We see it all the time,'' said Leo Williams, a North Carolina trucker who watches passengers and drivers play video games, hold phones to their ears and work laptop computers.
At a truck stop east of San Francisco, New Mexico trucker Gene Smith added: ``Computers. They're going down the road with a computer on in the front seat. I see more of that.''
Academics have coined the word ``carcooning'' to describe how people increasingly outfit their cars for comfort, entertainment and productivity. Phone systems are built in. New stereos pull in satellite radio broadcasts and play MP3 files downloaded from the Internet.
``You can now buy aftermarket TVs and plug them into the dash and actually watch DVD movies,'' said Lt. Joel Broumas, who heads the traffic division at the Modesto Police Department. ``We stopped a kid who was driving a nice Blazer. He had one hooked up in the dash, about an eight- or nine-inch deal.''
Doug Kalpakoff, salesman at Wireless World in Morgan Hill, said TVs that drop from the roof are popular in SUVs, and some stores are installing video screens on front-seat passenger visors.
That has alarmed some California legislators, who proposed bills this year and last to follow the lead of New York state and ban California drivers from using hand-held cell phones.
Both measures died after vigorous opposition from communications companies, who argued that the number of wireless phone users has jumped from 10 million in 1988 to 120 million in 2002 without a huge corresponding increase in car crashes.
Already, cell phones, in-car electronics and radio-CD systems represent the leading cause of inattention in crashes that killed 6,516 Californians and injured 413,913 last year.
Those causes ran well ahead of eating, smoking, children, pets, reading and personal hygiene. Yet many, including the California Highway Patrol, which last year joined 15 states that gather such statistics, believe cell phone and high-tech inattention is greatly underreported because most offenders don't admit to it.
Auto industry spokesmen say consumers drive the demand for devices that often distract them.
Still Vann Wilber, director of vehicle safety for the Washington-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers admits, said it is difficult to gauge what overloads one driver and doesn't distract another.
``It's kind of a new frontier in the study of human factors and human engineering,'' he said.
Back at the truck stop, Williams and Smith grouse about ``the lady in the van, on the phone, smoking a cigarette, drinking coffee, fixing her hair and taking the kids to school.'' But Williams also confessed to a cell phone habit, saying ``I can't say anything. I have one myself.''
And Smith pointed to the laptop computer in his front seat. ``They give me my load assignments on this,'' he said.