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Some People Need Crash Course in Avoiding Driver Distraction

No wonder studies indicate some people driving while using their smart phones show similar impairment as motorists who flunk breath tests.

If a computer crashes, oh-oh. If a car crashes, oh no! If a car crashes because a distracted driver is fiddling with on-board computer gear, well, welcome to the risky age of road-warrior connectivity.

Driver distraction increased with the advent of cell phones. The originals were strictly conversation pieces. A driver talking on one had a hand off the steering wheel.

That posed a certain risk. Worse, many drivers enter a hypnosis-like state during cell-phone conversations.

Sorry, I don’t want to share the road with a driver who’s in a phone call-induced trance, no matter how many hands are on the wheel. But at least those motorists weren’t diverting their eyes from the road in order to gaze longingly into their cell phones.

Then along came smart phones that both visually and audibly enrapture users. People texting, emailing and such on their mobile devices typically use both hands. And both eyes. That’s fine, as long as you are not driving a vehicle.

No wonder studies indicate some people driving while using their smart phones show similar impairment as motorists who flunk breath tests.

I’ve been with drivers who can do all sorts of different things and still focus enough to keep the car out of a ditch. Conversely, I’ve traveled with people who can get dangerously absorbed by changing radio channels.

Offer modern vehicle connectivity to the latter bunch, and you’ve disconnected them from the wonderful world of traffic safety.

Distracted driving is a national “epidemic,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says, tying it to 5,500 traffic deaths and 500,000 injuries a year.

He bridles at the prospects of auto makers filling their products with stuff that may keep drivers connected, but also diminishes their driving skills.

Auto makers say they are responsibly trying to give consumers the latest in connectivity, while not contributing to crashes of a vehicular kind.

But Phil Magney, an automotive researcher for IHS consultancy, says, “You have to limit some applications while the vehicle is in motion.”

A voice-command system helps keep thing under control. So would “a system that says, ‘The driver will get back with you later,’” Magney says at an automotive conference in New York.

But he adds, “There has been a rush to get technologies on board. We need to reel back a bit.”

Auto makers claim they’re on the case by trying to minimize driver distraction while maximizing the latest in onboard connectivity. Allan Mulally, who worked for Boeing before becoming Ford CEO, makes an aeronautical analogy.

“In aviation, a pilot needs absolute control and situational awareness,” he tells an auto industry gathering in Detroit. “That’s essential to cockpit design.” And now to vehicle-interior design.

Mulally offers what he wryly calls a “news flash.” He says, “People drive better if they keep their hands and eyes on the road. Do that, and it is unbelievable how you can also multi-task safely.”

That is why Ford offers an advanced voice-command system. “We started out with hundreds of voice commands, now there are thousands,” Mulally says. “Our data show we can make an absolutely significant reduction in driver distraction.

“We can help you be a better driver and also be connected to the rest of the world.”

Even so, some motorists need to take a crash course on making driving their No.1 priority, not an afterthought to connectivity activity.

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