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AolNews  2010-01-11

Opinion: Auto Technology That Kills

Leonard Evans    Special to AOL News

(Jan. 11) -- One of the big news items out of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week was technology aimed at bringing connectivity to cars: letting drivers manage streaming music, reply to e-mails, locate points of interest, look up Wikipedia entries, get restaurant reviews and more while on the road.

As MSNBC put it: "Consumers are getting so accustomed to their smartphones performing near-miraculous feats that carmakers have realized that they need to exploit the features of the devices to put some of that magic on wheels."

But this magic will come at a huge price of thousands of needless deaths -- not just drivers under the spell, but also passengers, pedestrians and people in other cars.

It also points to the nation's disjointed approach to traffic safety, which forces automakers to stuff cars full of expensive safety technology and then lets them add distractions that can easily overwhelm any possible safety benefits.

More than 70 years of scientific research into traffic safety has confirmed one thing: What is really important to traffic safety is how motorists drive. The safest driver in the least safe car traveling on the least safe road is far safer than many drivers in the safest cars on the road today. And a safe driver not paying attention to driving quickly becomes a dangerous driver.

We have all driven while listening to the radio waiting to hear, say, a sports result. A minor incident occurs in the traffic, and later we realize we have no idea who won the game. Fortunately, we had enough attention on the road to detect the incident and immediately switch all our attention to driving.

But, as the task competing with driving becomes more absorbing, we risk another case of "I just did not see the traffic light."

That's why cell phone use is already a major contributor to highway deaths. One study finds that a driver using a cell phone is four times as likely to crash as the same driver not using the cell phone. Another study estimates that drivers talking on cell phones cause 2,600 fatalities a year.

Cell phones increase risk because some mental capacity must be devoted to the content of the cell phone conversation, leaving less available for driving. Eyes might also be diverted from the road, generating additional risk.

Driving while distracted is not like drunk driving -- it is far worse.

The victims of drunk driving are overwhelmingly the drunk drivers themselves, and their usually similarly drunk passengers. The majority of drunk driver deaths occur in single-vehicle crashes in the "wee small hours" when most people are asleep.

In stark contrast, the victims of distracted driving are in all too many cases random road users behaving responsibly. Sober drivers, for example, are responsible for 90 percent of the child pedestrians killed each year.

Society must begin to regard driving while distracted by electronic devices as far more serious even than drunk driving, and to develop sensible regulations to protect the public.

That's not going to happen until the federal government steps up to its role of helping prevent you from being harmed by others. And that's not going to happen until it has a strong traffic safety advocate at the helm.

But right now, the agency responsible for traffic safety -- the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) -- is leaderless. After almost a year in office, President Barack Obama has no nominee. Early in his administration, he chose an outstanding nominee, Charles Hurley, who had been head of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and understood what was really important in safety. But he withdrew his nomination in the midst of pressure from environmental groups because he acknowledged that stricter fuel economy standards reduce safety.

The auto industry claims that it is well aware of the risks these new connected devices can cause and is taking steps to minimize them.

But that's not nearly enough.

The federal government has in place hundreds of pointless regulations whose only effect is to irritate and constrain auto manufacturers and increase costs to car buyers. NHTSA should make a deal to get rid of all this nonsense and instead enact some sensible regulations about what can be on board vehicles. The result would be that many thousands of lives could be saved.

Having high-tech distracting devices accessible by drivers in moving vehicles is worse than having a six-pack or an open whiskey bottle in the front seat. It's time for government regulators to recognize this.
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Leonard Evans is an internationally recognized traffic safety expert who spent 33 years with General Motors Research Laboratories and is author of "Traffic Safety".

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