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Distractions rise - but distracted driving deaths don't



U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood met with Ford CEO Alan Mulally on Tuesday to discuss the "epidemic" of distracted driving, as LaHood calls it.

LaHood’s self-described rampage against distracted driving has mostly focused on cell phone use in cars.  But the Secretary has also angered many people in the car business for criticizing profit-driving car technologies like Onstar and Sync. 

Many 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," says Paul Green of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. "And if your brain is engaged in something else, that makes it even worse."

Green and other experts on distracted driving have a new worry these days, known generically as infotainment systems.  Ford Motor Company, 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, which is why his group would not recommend two vehicles that come with the system, called "MyFordTouch."

Champion says his drivers may not be experts in distracted driving research.  But they know a distraction when they see it.   Test drivers still had trouble using the MyFordTouch system after a week or two of living with the Ford cars.

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

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 MyFordTouch system, saying driver distraction is an industry-wide problem.  So Dave Sullivan of AutoPacific demonstrated the system in a parked Lincoln MKX.  The touch- sensitive computer screen was not very sensitive.  Sullivan often had to hit a small icon two or three times before it responded. 

And the voice recognition part of the system had bugs in it, too. 

Sullivan: Play song, "Back Door Man." Computer: Playing song, "Carve Your Name." Reporter: So it heard you wrong. Sullivan: It did not recognize the words “Back Door Man,” which is a Sarah McLachlan song. Instead it played “Carve Your Name” by the Nadas , a small Iowa band.

UMTRI researcher Paul Green says he's very concerned about the new technologies,  because they encourage people to do exactly what they shouldn't do in a car:  take their eyes, their hands, and their mental attention away from the road, the steering wheel, and driving conditions. 

While everyone agrees that driving while distracted is a serious concern that should be addressed, there's a problem with calling it an epidemic, as Secretary LaHood does. 

Distracted driving killed about 5,000 people last year, and caused a staggering half a million accidents.  But while that's a big number, and a big problem, it's not a growing problem.  Accidents due to distracted driving have stayed about the same for years.  

Adrian Lund is President of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.   He says his group fully expected distracted driving accidents to go up once people started using cell phones in their cars in large numbers.  But it didn't happen.    And distracted driving accidents didn't go down in states that banned cell phone use in cars.

Lund's theory?

"People were distracted before, and they’re still distracted, they’re just distracted by different things, and they’re crashing for slightly different reasons, more of them are cell phones, rather than changing a CD."

That isn't to say Lund isn't very concerned about the increasing complexity of new technologies being installed in vehicles.  It's possible we may have hit the limit of our ability to handle these distractions.  And there's more in-car technology on the way.   GM’s Onstar may let drivers update their Facebook pages soon. 

While Ford Motor Company has taken an early lead in introducing technology into vehicles, it's also developing technologies designed to combat distracted driving, such as crash avoidance and lane departure warnings.

But Consumer Reports' David Champion notes the distracting infotainment technology is often coming first, and the safety technology is playing a catch-up game.  And he questions whether some of the technology is even necessary. 

In other words, maybe updating our Facebook status is something we can wait to do, after we've turned off the car.

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.   

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.