The New Addiction: Gadgetry and Distracted Driving

It began in the mid-1980s with the car phone, marketed as the must-have automobile accessory and status symbol for the elite. In 1985, there were 340,000 wireless customers. Ten years later, as phones become sleeker and less expensive, there were 34 million. By 2008, cell phone industry revenues reached $148 billion.

Today’s car manufacturers know that, in terms of quality and safety, most cars tend to be pretty much alike. To distinguish themselves, auto makers are offering more high tech options like “infotainment systems,” built-in navigation features and integrated phone systems. A new dashboard console created by Ford includes a 4.2 inch color screen to the left of the speedometer displaying vehicle information like fuel level. To the right, a companion screen identifies things like the name of a cell phone caller or the title of a song selected from a digital file. Atop the center console is an 8 inch touch screen displaying control panels and, when the car is not in motion, Web pages. The system is equipped with Wi-Fi capability, two USB portals and accommodates a plug-in keyboard.

Distracted drivers, those who are multitasking or talking on cell phones, are 4 times more likely to cause a crash than other drivers. According to a 2003 Harvard study, drivers on cell phones cause 2,600 fatal crashes a year, along with 570,000 accidents involving injuries. Cell phone use is responsible for more fatalities than all other distractions, including children, pets, eating and personal grooming. Yet, on any given day during daylight hours, nearly 2 million drivers are using their cell phones and engaging in distracted driving.

Why do drivers persist in such risky behavior? For one thing, each driver overestimates his or her ability to drive safely while multitasking. In addition, intense social pressures compel us to remain constantly available to friends, family and colleagues. We have also become highly addicted to our gadgetry. A Harvard psychiatry professor explained that the quick burst of adrenaline we get when using digital devices makes us grow bored with simpler tasks like driving. As the brain becomes rewired to crave ever more stimulation, we are developing a condition known as acquired attention deficit disorder. In fact, drivers on cell phones can display the kind of erratic behavior- swerving across lanes, running red lights- usually seen in drivers intoxicated by alcohol.

The promotion of hands-free cell phone devices has not resulted in safer driving. Some scientists argue that hands-free laws increase distracted driving risks by appearing to condone the use of cell phones by motorists. Nor are the new voice-activated phone and music systems guaranteed to be less dangerous. As long as they increase the chances that drivers will take their eyes off the road to look at a screen, even just a simple GPS map, they increase the risk of accidents. As screens deliver additional streams of data and drivers look away from the road for longer periods, their risk of a crash or near-crash increases exponentially.

On the whole, the cell phone industry supports a legislative ban on texting while driving. For years, however, it opposed laws seeking to curb the use of cell phones by drivers. As cars offer more and more tantalizing digital and electronic devices, it becomes that much more difficult for lawmakers to keep pace with the threat of distracted driving. Individual drivers may choose to limit or forgo the use of such devices, but they must still beware of the multitasker in the next lane.