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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Teen Drivers' Distractions Becoming Big Problem

Cell Phones, mp3 Players the Biggest Culprits

According to Thomas Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which monitored 241 drivers ages 18 to 73 in its "100-Car Study" around Washington, D.C., teenage drivers are on the verge of "an impairment epidemic." Roughly 40 of those drivers were teens, and their impairment is due to the great number of distractions in automobiles and trucks, and from drowsy driving, said Dingus and project manager Sheila "Charlie" Klauer.

"It's to be expected," Klauer said. "First of all, I don't think their judgment is anywhere near as good as they think and I think they are prone to use the cell phones and (to) text message their friends (more) than older drivers."

Teens love technology - from cell phones to mp3 music players to dashboard maps that talk to drivers – that is becoming increasingly sophisticated and ever-present in automobiles and trucks. When you consider that research shows teens are particularly vulnerable to distraction and tend to think of themselves as both invincible and skillful multi-taskers, that is a frightening mix.

"What we've seen and continue to see is that teen drivers engage in a lot of different types of tasks while driving," said Dingus. "The problem is they're not very good at judging risk. They tend to use (the devices) in driving situations when they shouldn't," he added.

Dingus suggests a nationwide ban on all handheld devices - not just cell phones - for all drivers under 18. Klauer supports the idea.

"All of these things need to be banned," Klauer said. "Teens haven't fully learned to recognize hazardous driving situations and the only way they're going to learn it is without wireless devices."

Experts agree that because of their lack of driving experience, distractions posed by cell phones, digital music players and other gadgets is a serious problem among teen drivers.

Drowsiness is another significant crash factor for teen drivers. The 100-car study demonstrated that 18- to 20-year-olds were in five times more crashes and near-crashes involving drowsiness than any other age group, according to Klauer. "That was one of the findings of the study that surprised us," she added.

Many auto manufacturers are addressing these concerns by moving toward voice-activation devices, including next-generation technology that will let drivers download music and access songs by employing voice commands.

Dingus encourages the shift. Klauer believes that the voice-activated technology will improve safety, but, she said, " the technology is not perfect and it's got a ways to go before it's going to reduce drivers' 'eyes-off-road time' in any significant way."

Klauer and other experts contend what a driver is thinking about is nearly as important as where he is looking; therefore, a driver remains distracted despite hands-free technology. Eliminating device fiddling is insufficient, they say.

"I still think people need to be smart about it," Klauer said. "There are points in time when they're just going to have to drive and do nothing else."

Disputing this is Bill Kozyra, president and chief executive officer of Continental Automotive Systems' North American Division. He said new technologies adhere to the rigorous standards implemented by the Society of Automotive Engineers and the U.S. Department of Transportation. Of those standards, one requires the blocking of adjustments to dashboard navigation systems when the vehicle is moving, Kozyra said.

Kozyra said many of the precision gadgets include a one-button activation and voice-control thereafter. "You would have more multi-tasking trying to adjust the heater in your car than you would using many of these technologies," he said.

"When you have one button on your steering wheel," Kozyra added, "I think you can see the difference there. We design this stuff with safety in mind."

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