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Chrome theater

More motorists are installing video screens, DVD players and PlayStations to provide the comfort - but maybe not the safety - of home in their cars.

Published July 27, 2003

TAMPA - Justin DeJesus, a 17-year-old senior at Wharton High School, has a color TV, a DVD player, a PlayStation 2 and 200 channels of satellite radio.

All inside his pickup.

"When I roll up at school, everyone comes up," DeJesus said.

He and his friends often hang out in his GMC Sonoma in the parking lot before class, playing the car-racing video game Grand Turismo 3 until the bell rings.

Once the staples of living rooms, rec rooms and bedrooms, video screens aren't just for indoors anymore. They've gone mobile. Screens are being installed in head rests, dashboards and, sometimes, the center of the steering wheel.

From soccer moms to electronics enthusiasts, some motorists are spending from $800 to $30,000 on equipment, making "mobile home theater" the fastest-growing segment of the audio-video industry.

Video screens and DVD players are stock features in some new cars. Rapper Sean "P Diddy" Combs has partnered with Lincoln to design a sport utility vehicle that comes with six plasma screens, three DVD players and a Sony PlayStation 2. Price tag: $85,000.

But never mind the cost. Is it safe to have all this equipment in cars, especially in these times of distracted drivers, cell phones and road rage?

"It's part of this mushrooming problem of dangerous driving in America," said Lisa Sheikh, executive director for the Partnership for Safe Driving in Washington, D.C. "Anything that is put into the view of the driver with the ability to distract the driver is just terrifying."

She advocates strict state laws on distracted driving caused by anything from screens to cell phones.

Police in Florida have not connected any fatal crashes to in-vehicle video screens. But according to the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska state troopers say Erwin Petterson Jr. was watching Road Trip on an in-dash screen when he crashed his pickup into another vehicle, killing two people. Petterson, who is awaiting trial on charges of second-degree murder, has denied he was watching the movie.

Although officers are not seeing a rise in crashes because of the equipment, they are seeing an increase in vehicle burglaries. Video screens and DVD players have become popular items to steal.

On July 10, Tampa police Chief Bennie Holder had finished lunching on a workday afternoon when he saw a man trying to steal the DVD player, cell phone and video screen from his Lincoln Navigator.

"It was like a dream," Holder said.

The robber abandoned the video screen and DVD player, but made off with the cell phone. He hasn't been caught, police said.

While elaborate entertainment systems on wheels might spur illegal activity, some aspects of the devices themselves might be illegal.

According to Florida law, video screens cannot be "within view" of the driver, Florida Highway Patrol Maj. Becky Tharpe said. If cited for such a violation, a driver could be fined $60. Tharpe has never issued such a citation, and police say those violations are uncommon.

Some new cars circumvent the law by placing screens that are both video and navigational systems in dashboards, she said. Navigational system screens in the dashboard are legal under Florida law.

"Lexus has the on-screen satellite system where you can actually watch DVDs, but it cannot be operated while the vehicle is in motion," Tharpe said.

Some electronics stores that install in-dash screens, including Sound Advice, link the on/off switch to the parking brake, making it impossible for anything to play on the screen until the parking brake is engaged.

Karial Lamanati, manager of the Sound Advice store at 1102 E Fowler Ave., said that when the screens are turned on, they show a warning: "This is not to be used while the car is in motion."

Still, some of Lamanati's customers want the screen on when the vehicle is in motion.

"Why can't I watch it when I'm driving?"' Lamanati says people ask him. "I tell them it can't be done."

But those with some know-how can wire the screens so they operate when the vehicle is moving.

Kane Blanford, 34, of Palm Harbor, can play movies while driving.

"I definitely wanted to have movies for long trips," said Blanford, a videographer.

Blanford spent just less than $1,000 on a video screen and a PlayStation 2 for his 1999 Honda Civic. Like DeJesus, Blanford uses the PlayStation to run video games and DVDs.

He said he doesn't watch the videos while he's driving, and he certainly doesn't play video games. They're for passengers, he said.

"Obviously, even though the driver is not watching - or should not be watching - it is an added distraction that can cause a crash," said Yoli Buss, spokeswoman for AAA Auto Club South in Tampa.

Carlos Perez, 22, of Tampa, said he has employed some safety rules since spending $3,500 on four screens and a combined DVD/CD player for his 2001 Volkswagen Jetta.

Although he has screens in both the driver's and passenger's overhead visors, he said he never watches movies while he is driving, opting to turn on only the two screens in the head rests facing the back seats.

He said he doesn't play X-rated or violent movies in his car because he doesn't want to distract other drivers. He doesn't turn on the screens at night.

"It's more for enjoyment than anything else," Perez said. "I thought, how cool would it be to have a TV in your car?"

Most people who buy screens for their vehicles are doing it for the kids, said Eddie DeJesus, who owns Tropical Alarms, 1902 N Himes Ave. in Tampa. DeJesus - father of the Wharton High student, Justin - has TV screens and video players in his Mazda.

Both father and son enter their vehicles in car shows. Each has about $35,000 worth of equipment in his vehicle. Most of DeJesus' customers spend a lot less.

"I just did a gentleman here last week, a Land Rover. He's going on a trip and wanted to have TVs inside," DeJesus said. "Three monitors: $1,500. That's the price of entertainment for a road trip.

"A lot of the mothers right now are using the TV as a babysitter: Have the kids watch a movie in the car and they will be quiet."

Not everyone understands why people would need all that entertainment on wheels; some wonder why people feel the need to be connected to a video monitor outside of home.

"It's hard. Once you have it, it's hard to be cut off from it," said Joshua Meyrowitz, professor of media studies at the University of New Hampshire and author of No Sense of Place, a book about television's impact on our culture.

"That's one of the reasons why it's extending into vehicles."

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

[Last modified July 27, 2003, 07:46:40]

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