High-Tech Invitations Take Your Mind Off Road
By BILL VLASIC
DETROIT — Drivers have never had so many distractions tempting them to take their eyes off the road and their hands off the wheel.
Talking on cellphones and typing text messages while driving has already led to bans in many states. But now auto companies, likening their latest models to living rooms on the road, are turning cars into cocoons of communication systems and high-tech entertainment.
Some drivers are packing their car interiors with G.P.S. navigation screens, portable DVD players and even computer keyboards and printers.
State Senator Carl L. Marcellino of New York learned this firsthand while riding in a cab in Miami — the driver was watching a boxing match on a television mounted on the dashboard.
“I can understand a monitor in the rear, but up front it is a different world,” said Mr. Marcellino, who sponsored a bill last year to ban all “display generating devices” in the driver’s view. New York already has a law against TV sets in the front seat.
“The driver shouldn’t be doing anything other than driving,” Mr. Marcellino said.
Motorists have always engaged in risky behavior, whether it is eating a sandwich, arguing with a spouse, applying makeup or studying a map while speeding down the interstate.
But safety experts say the influx of electronics is turning cars into sometimes chaotic — and distracting — moving family rooms.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 80 percent of vehicle crashes and 65 percent of close calls are caused in part by driver distraction.
And some devastating accidents have drawn further attention to the dangers. Last June, five teenage girls were driving to a vacation home in upstate New York when their sport utility vehicle crashed head-on into a tractor-trailer, killing all of them.
The police later learned from phone records that the driver had been typing text messages on her phone just before she swerved out of her lane. Toxicology tests ruled out alcohol and drugs as possible causes. The rise in distraction-related accidents is chilling to auto-safety advocates who typically study air bags and rollovers.
“If we don’t do something about it, you’re looking at a situation that could rival drunk driving as a risk factor in crashes,” said Clarence M. Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington.
Automakers do not argue with bans that prohibit the use of hand-held phones while driving. Still, they are rushing headlong to equip vehicles with hands-free systems and elaborate navigation devices that can also deliver sports scores and the location of the nearest Chinese restaurant.
The companies say they are responding to consumer demand, not to mention the hefty profits that electronic options generate. At least one top Detroit auto executive has compared outfitting cars with creature comforts to furnishing a home.
Chrysler advertises its Dodge Grand Caravan minivan as a mobile “family room,” and Robert L. Nardelli, Chrysler’s chairman and a former Home Depot chief executive, likes the comparison.
“I think a vehicle today has to be your most favorite room under your roof,” Mr. Nardelli said last October at a magazine publishers’ conference. “It has to bring you gratification; it has to be tranquil. It’s incidental that it gets you from Point A to Point B, right?”
That assertion left Anne T. McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, almost speechless. “I don’t even know how to respond to that,” she said. “There’s just overwhelming evidence that distraction is a crash risk.”
The evidence cited most often by safety experts involved 100 cars and 42,000 hours of driving time monitored by in-vehicle cameras and sensors over a one-year period in northern Virginia and the Washington area.
The study, conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and released in 2006, found that “secondary task distraction” was a central factor in auto accidents. The biggest culprit was hand-held wireless devices, along with the act of dialing phone numbers or sending text messages.
“Texting is really bad, and so is dialing a cellphone, using your BlackBerry or manipulating through an iPod menu,” said Thomas A. Dingus, one of the principal investigators in the study.
But, Mr. Dingus added, any activity that takes a driver’s eyes off the road for even a couple of seconds can cause a crash.
Devices that can cause such inattention to the road include sophisticated guidance systems that alert drivers to the nearest Starbucks and cheapest gas stations, and stereo systems that connect to portable MP3 players, Mr. Dingus said.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group, has recommended guidelines for video screens and controls. They include designing systems so that they do not impair the driver’s sight lines or “visually entertain the driver while driving.”
“Safety is our No. 1 concern,” said Wade Newton, a spokesman for the group. “But as hard as we try, we can’t design it well enough if the driver doesn’t take their own role when it comes to safety.”
Some automakers say they are improving safety by offering more hands-free phone systems in vehicles and by simplifying voice-activated technology.
Last year, for example, the Ford Motor Company introduced its Sync system as an option. The $400 system allows drivers to use voice commands to dial numbers on mobile phones, receive audio text messages and activate digital music players. Ford expects to have one million Sync-equipped vehicles on the road by 2009.
“Voice interface is sort of the way of the future,” said Louis Tijerina, a senior technical specialist in Ford’s research and advanced engineering division. “Voice dialing is clearly superior to dialing manually.”
Amanda Kochmit, an 18-year-old college student in Sheffield Village, Ohio, said the Sync system significantly improved her driving performance. “I find it much easier to focus on the road,” she said. “When using a hand-held phone I found myself sometimes slightly veering off to the side, trying to type the correct number of the phone.”
Further research on distracted driving is under way, including a three-year study by the Virginia Tech group that will record the behavior of 2,500 drivers nationwide. The results are expected to be released in 2011.
Automakers are constantly adding new electronics, as Ford did last week at the Chicago Auto Show in introducing a pickup equipped with an in-dash computer and Internet access. One of General Motors’ suppliers recently unveiled a “dashboard of the future” that replaces traditional controls and gauges with touch-screen video displays.
Some safety advocates wonder whether studies on driver behavior will always be a step behind new technology. “It seems that society is moving so fast that the effects on safety just aren’t fully understood until problems arise,” said Sean Kane of Safety Research and Strategies, a consulting firm in Rehoboth, Mass.
Even drivers who are focused on the road can suffer from electronic overload — from passengers who, say, might be fighting over which DVD to watch.
The typical minivan or large S.U.V. often has several DVD screens for passengers in rear seats, as well as a variety of video game options and audio systems.
The Japanese automaker Nissan unveiled a concept minivan, called the Forum, at last month’s Detroit auto show. Like most minivans, the Forum has an integrated media system that allows children and other passengers to watch movies, play games and hear their favorite songs.
The designers included a low-tech feature specifically for a driver distracted by the technology — a button that immediately shuts down all the electronics to silence unruly passengers and, presumably, make driving safer.
“I guess we were all saying, when is enough enough?” said Bruce Campbell, a vice president of Nissan Design America. “At some point, you need to say time out, no more distractions.”
Nick Bunkley and Mary M. Chapman contributed reporting.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company