Tue January 25, 2011

Can Drivers Handle More Gadgets? Some Say 'No'

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was in Detroit Tuesday to speak with Ford CEO Alan Mulally about distracted driving. LaHood's self-described "rampage" against distracted driving has mostly focused on cell phone use in cars. But LaHood has also angered many people in the car business for criticizing infotainment systems like OnStar and Sync.

But LaHood is not the only one who is concerned about the devices.

Studies show that using a cell phone in the car is distracting. And so are a lot of other things, especially if they pile up. Let's say you're driving and there's a kid in the back seat crying. That's distracting. If you remember the Ed Sullivan Show, you can think of that as one plate spinning on top of a pole. Let's say you're also late. That's another spinning plate. You're checking a map on your GPS for directions, and traffic is getting heavy: Plate, plate. And if you get too many things going at once, those plates will start to fall.

"If your eyes are off the road, and your hands are off the wheel, that's a problem. And if your brain is engaged in something else, that makes it even worse," says Paul Green with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

Green and other safety experts have a new worry these days, known generically as infotainment systems. Ford, for example, has a new technology that replaces manual control knobs with a computer screen, with icons that you touch with your fingertips. It can take a lot of glances away from the road and a lot of your hand leaving the steering wheel just to switch on the air conditioning.

David Champion of Consumer Reports says this system and others like it are too distracting.

"Actually Ford now is having a tutorial that they put drivers through before they buy the car, which is ridiculous, really," he says.

Champion says voice commands have the potential to be less distracting. But if they don't work, it can be just one more spinning plate. Ford officials declined to be interviewed about the so-called MyFord Touch system, saying driver distraction is an industry-wide problem.

So NPR asked Dave Sullivan of AutoPacific to demonstrate in a Lincoln MKX by verbally requesting a specific song. The system heard Sullivan wrong: Instead of playing the Sarah McLaughlin song "Back Door Man," it played "Carve Your Name" by the Nadas, a small Iowa band.

So add infotainment systems to the growing list of distracting technology we use in our cars. But while we know that distracted driving kills people, about 5,000 last year — it doesn't seem to be getting any worse. There were about a half million accidents in 2010 due to distracted driving. It's a big number, a big problem, but not a growing problem.

"People were distracted before, and they're still distracted, they're just distracted by different things," says Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "And they're crashing for slightly different reasons — more of them are cell phones, rather than changing a CD."

But Lund and others are still worried that maybe we've hit the limit of our ability to handle distraction.

And there's more in-car technology on the way. GM's Onstar may let drivers update their Facebook pages soon. For now, the federal government is taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to legislating distracted driving.

Even Secretary LaHood is toning down the rhetoric, saying he wants to develop partnerships with car companies in his campaign against distracted driving. Copyright 2011 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit http://michiganradio.org/.

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