- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 4, 2002

The more time Americans spend in their cars, the more they try and make better use of that time by using technology cell phones, laptop computers, etc. to link up with the office, conduct business, or simply entertain themselves via built-in TVs and entertainment systems. But they'd make much better use of their time by keeping their eyes on the road and their attention on the task at hand, which is driving.

Multi-tasking behind the wheel is never a good idea, yet people attempt it nonetheless. From talking on a cell phone to fiddling with the onboard GPS navigation system, more and more drivers are trying and failing to keep one eye on the road and the other on something else. As reported recently by the Associated Press, accidents and deaths caused by distracted driving are on the rise. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that 600 to 1,000 deaths occurred in 2001, and that as many as 2,000 motorists could be killed annually by 2004 as a result of distraction-caused motor vehicle accidents.

Unfortunately, the problem is likely to get worse as new cars and trucks become encrusted with the latest technological do-dads including Internet access and the ability to check e-mail, for instance that are just around the corner. A popular aftermarket modification already causing problems is the installation of TV screens in the driver's line-of-sight which, though technically illegal, is nonetheless something well within the ability of many backyard tinkerers. And it's not especially hard to find a shop that will do the job, either. "We're seeing a lot of requests for mobile video," Wireless World salesman Doug Kalpakoff told the AP.

Meanwhile, automakers such as Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz (among others) have been adding such things as "intelligent" cruise control that uses radar to adjust following speed and other such feats of technology that tend to absolve the driver of responsibility for actually driving the car. BMW has an Active Gas Pedal system in the works that will actually exert pressure against the driver's foot if the computer thinks it's time to slow down. Soon, we'll all be able to just take a nap or at least be tempted to.

Add to the mix extremely elaborate audio systems with dozens of switches and controls, CD changers, MP3 players, satellite radio, satellite navigation systems which add yet another visual distraction and it's no wonder that people are finding themselves piled into the car ahead before they even realize it's time to hit the brakes. And with commute times rising and people spending more time than ever "carcooned" in their vehicles, the temptation to make use of all the available technology becomes even greater.

It may take regulatory intervention to deal with this burgeoning problem. Many states have taken steps, for example, to restrict (or forbid entirely) the use of cell phones by the driver while the vehicle is in motion. Similar steps may be necessary as regards the very likely prospect that motorists will soon be able to access the Internet from their vehicles and it's hard to argue that watching television or anything remotely like that ought to be allowed while simultaneously attempting to control a 3,000-pound moving object. In the meanwhile, self-policing and plain old-fashioned common sense would really help. Multi-task once you're at your desk not behind the wheel of a moving car.

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