- The Washington Times - Monday, August 26, 2002

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Gone are the good old days of distracted driving when motorists merely juggled coffee, shaved, read a map, drove with a pet dog in the lap and lit cigarettes for the miles still ahead.

Today, millions of American drivers are taking driver absent-mindedness to new heights.

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Behind the wheel, they are talking on cellular phones, sending and receiving pages, checking sports scores on personal digital assistants and even sneaking glances at television.

Though the much-maligned cell phone gets the headlines for stealing drivers "glance time" and causing abrupt lane weaving, safety specialists say its the mere tip of the iceberg.

In California, a state that has long defined American car culture, more commute-weary residents are loading up their interiors with videocassette and digital video disc players, fax machines and dashboard video screens for satellite navigation systems.

Analysts attribute the trend to the states legendary and worsening traffic, which traps people in their cars for longer stretches and further blurs lines between the office and front seat.

That is raising new fears among an array of authorities from lawmakers to insurance companies about a spate of road crashes as more people literally are driven to distraction.

Officials believe up to 30 percent of crashes nationwide are caused by driver distractions that include mobile communications devices.

A March report by the National Conference of State Legislatures suggested device-related distractions that killed an estimated 600 to 1,000 motorists in 2001 could kill 2,000 a year by 2004.

The report also cites "great potential" for even more dramatic increases in fatalities by the decades end.

To those who spend most of their lives on the road, the handwriting is on the asphalt.

"We see it all the time," says Leo Williams, a North Carolina trucker who watches passengers and drivers play video games, hold phones to their ears and work laptop computers.

At an Interstate 80 truck stop east of San Francisco, New Mexico trucker Gene Smith adds: "Computers. Theyre going down the road with a computer on in the front seat. I see more of that."

"You can now buy aftermarket TVs and plug them into the dash and actually watch DVD movies," says Lt. Joel Broumas, who heads the traffic division at the Modesto Police Department in the Central Valley. "We stopped a kid who was driving a nice Blazer. He had one hooked up in the dash, about an 8- or 9-inch deal."

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.

"Were seeing a lot of requests for mobile video," says Doug Kalpakoff, salesman at Wireless World in Morgan Hill, Calif. "Fewer people are flying and more are driving. The most popular is the drop-down screen from the roof. We see that in larger SUVs."

Some stores, he says, now install video screens on front-seat passenger visors.California legislators 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 by major wireless companies, who argued that the number of wireless-phone users had jumped from 10 million in 1988 to 120 million in 2002 without a huge corresponding increase in car crashes.

Cell phones, in-car electronics, and radio and compact disc systems were the leading causes 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 dont admit to it.

Auto industry spokesmen say consumers drive the demand for devices that often distract them, and carmakers equally oppose limiting "what you can put in your car."

But Vann Wilber, director of vehicle safety for the District-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, says "its not a particularly precise science" between what overloads one driver and doesnt distract another. "Its kind of a new frontier in the study of human factors and human engineering."

On Californias I-80, Mr. Williams and Mr. Smith grouse heartily about "the lady in the van, on the phone, smoking a cigarette, drinking coffee, fixing her hair and taking the kids to school." But Mr. Williams also confesses to a cell-phone habit, saying "I cant say anything. I have one myself."

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