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Too distracting?

As automobile gadgets - video screens, Internet access, faxes, programmable stereo systems - require more of our attention, are they setting us up for more accidents?

©New York Times, published March 27, 2000

WASHINGTON -- When car phones became popular, some people asked whether motorists could talk and drive safely at the same time. A decade later, that question seems naive; many new cell phones can connect a laptop computer to the Internet, or the phones themselves have screens that can be used to browse the World Wide Web.

Other potential distractions now popular in cars are navigation systems with maps to point the way to a destination. Some high-end vehicles have video-screen controls for trip computers, built-in phones, air conditioners or stereo systems.

No one is sure just how much distraction a driver can stand, but there are indications that the answer is less than the distractions that already exist, not to mention all those that automakers and electronics companies are promising to deliver. For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lists three fatal crashes in the past few years attributed to in-car fax machines.

Part of the problem may be distractions from the dials, switches or keypads of electronics gear in the car, but even voice-activated systems have safety officials worried.

"Voice activation on cell phones mitigates the problem at the beginning of the call and the end of the call," said H. Keith Brewer, director of the Office of Human-Centered Research at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, referring to phones that respond to oral commands such as "call home" or "hang up."

"But what you have in between is they're deeply engrossed in the conversation," Brewer said. "You can have cognitive overload; your hands may be on the wheel, but is your mind on the road? We really worry about that."

There is more to worry about. Sirius Satellite Radio, which plans to use satellites to broadcast to cars, and ATX Technologies say they will develop products to let drivers buy the music they hear on the radio, ordering it as they drive.

And Ford Motor Co. said it will offer Internet features, including e-mail, calendars, news, weather and traffic reports, through the cellular phones of Lincoln models. Ford's system would work by speaking and listening, rather than displaying data on a screen. Jacques Nasser, the company's chief executive, said: "Henry Ford put the world on wheels in the 20th century. In the new century, Ford Motor Co. will put the Internet on wheels."

The Internet, however, would not drive the car.

Even before electronic gadgets began to appear in cars, driving was what psychologists call a divided-attention task, because drivers have to watch the road and the speedometer at the same time, while reading street signs and working the controls -- perhaps having a conversation with a passenger or threatening to discipline unruly children in the back seat. And psychologists agree that attention may now be divided in too many ways.

"The question you are asking is "Can you walk and chew gum at the same time?' " said Barry Anton, a psychology professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. "The answer is: "Yes, but . . .' "

Psychologists say people can divide their attention -- or, perhaps more accurately, alternate it -- if tasks use different senses, such as vision and hearing. "You can talk on the phone and drive a car because driving the car involves visual and motor skills more than auditory skills," Anton said. And driving is routine for experienced drivers. "But as demand for one modality increases, divided attention weakens," he said.

Dr. Janet Shucard, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of Buffalo, studied subjects' ability to push a button when they heard a certain syllable in a soundtrack. People also were given the task while listening to "a very engaging story."

"They can do the task equally as accurately as without the stories," Shucard said, "but the timing of the decisionmaking process is slowed down."

Generally, Shucard said, people can divide their attention if one of the tasks is automatic, as much of driving is. But at the point that driving ceases to be automatic, performance may suffer.

Government researchers have tried to measure distraction through accident statistics but with limited success. In fatal accidents, the person who may have been distracted cannot say so because he died. In minor collisions, there is no police report; if there is one, it often does not indicate the reason for the accident.

But experts suspect that at least a quarter of the crashes in which a vehicle is towed away -- more than 1.5-million crashes a year -- occur because of inattention.

Field testing would tell researchers about performance and divided attention, but it would create an "ethical problem," Brewer said; they cannot send drivers out to cruise the highways and browse the Web.

By June, the highway traffic agency will have finished developing a driving simulator that will allow it to do the equivalent. The $50-million device has a computer that will translate signals from the steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedals into changing scenery on video screens that surround the car, and a system to push, pull and tilt the simulator to make the motion feel realistic.

Researchers can introduce a variety of actions, including vehicles that cut off the driver, animals or pedestrians that dart into the road, and other stimuli beyond the moment-to-moment challenges of driving.

The scenarios can be repeated, with the same driver or with different drivers, and with various distractions added. Researchers also plan to give test drivers doses of drugs and alcohol to measure the effect on performance.

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