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Driving to distraction: High tech gadgets can pose traffic danger

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

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David Worley and Shawn Seabaugh check the system of the newly installed Play Station 2 in Worley's vehicle
(photos by Tim Jaynes, Staff)
SIKESTON -- Cell phones aren't the only gadgets providing possible distractions for motorists these days. Now drivers can be found gabbing on the phone while sending e-mails and catching a glimpse of TV -- all at the same time.

Commute-weary drivers in the area are adding VCR and DVD players, lap tops and dashboard video screens for satellite navigation systems.

According to Shawn Seabaugh, installer for Z Best Cellular and Car Audio in Sikeston, TVs can be installed in sun visors, dashboards and head rests. Screen sizes range from 2.5 inches to 17 inches, Seabaugh said.

The devices are installed so the driver cannot play or view a movie or video game unless the vehicle is parked, Seabaugh said. However, these items are installed so passengers can view screens above them during travel.

Seabaugh puts in about four or five TVs or DVD players in vehicles each week. With prices of these items start at around $200 and up, the high-tech gadgets are growing more and more popular each day, he added.

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Although these gadgets may be ideal for some, others are worried about safety issues that may arise from motorists having too many distractions on the road.

"Inattention has always been a problem. There have just been different types of distraction through the years," said Jackie Allen, public information officer for the Missouri Division of Highway Safety in Jefferson City.

According to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, in 2001, nearly 108,449 crashes were caused due to inattention at the wheel. Of this number, there were 503 fatalities and 28,560 injuries.

Nationally, officials believe up to 30 percent of crashes are caused by driver distractions that include mobile communications devices.

Inattention can be defined in a number of ways -- from talking on the cell phone to playing with the radio to eating and putting on make-up, Allen explained.

A few tips to increase safety are to limit interaction with passengers, plan for activities, bring entertainment like books and soft toys for children, avoid eating and always wear your seatbelt, Allen recommended.

A March report by the National Conference of State Legislatures suggests device-related distractions that killed an estimated 600 to 1,000 motorists in 2001 could kill 2,000 a year by 2004.

As of Jan. 1, 2002, Missouri State Highway Patrol officers were required to administer new report guidelines. Before these guidelines, when an accident occurred as a result of inattention, officers would check the general box of "inattention" on their forms. They weren't able to determine what the inattention was. Now officers must classify inattention under one of nine categories that include cell phone, stereo, grooming, tobacco, etc.

"The more things you put into a vehicle, the more it diverts the attention of that driver, and the more they stand to have an accident," explained Lt. J.E. McNiell with the Missouri Highway Patrol.

Not that people aren't safe drivers with these gadgets, McNiell said. But with gadgets, the thought process is not as alert as it would be if the driver were focusing 110 percent on driving.

McNiell noted that Missouri legislation, like other states, has also looked closely at banning cell phone use while driving. He admits cell phones are handy and that he and other officers are seeing more and more people pull off to the side of the road to use their cell phones. McNiell commends those drivers for exercising that degree of caution.

McNiell encouraged cell phone users who have to talk while driving to use hands-free ability phones.

"Driving is a full-time responsibility," McNiell said. "You've got to pay attention to what you're doing. Again, if you don't give 110 percent, then you're increasing your chances of being involved in an accident."