Cellphones among many distractions on road

It dawned on the Road Warrior the week before Christmas as he was changing his car's satellite radio from a "Howard Stern Show" segment he had already heard to a channel that featured upbeat holiday music.

No, the "Aha!" moment was not that the Road Warrior has eclectic taste in travel entertainment.

It was that as he was pushing buttons on the portable console, which required him to read what channels he had to pass by to get to what he wanted to hear, he was taking his eyes off the road.

In the glance-down, look-up, glance-down, look-up process, he skipped over the station he wanted and had to go through the circuit a second time.

Simply, the Road Warrior was driven to distraction by distracted driving.

Losing one's focus behind the wheel happens all the time, say representatives of the Metropolitan Police Department and Nevada Highway Patrol - more so now as vehicle manufacturers try to one-up the competition with innovative dashboard technology to lure buyers.

The simple days of cars and trucks with AM/FM radio, or a tape deck, or even a compact disc player, have given way to whiz-bang front-seat offices where travel entertainment is the least of the distractions.

The fact that local law enforcement says most of us are guilty of some form of distracted driving doesn't make the Road Warrior feel better. He knows the importance of paying attention while behind the wheel.

But at least his portable satellite radio hookup is the only nontransportation device lighting up his dashboard.

Have you seen the dashboards of many of the new vehicles out there, including the ones recently advertised as Christmas presents or now being pushed by dealerships during their end-of-the-year inventory blowout sales?

Automated GPS. Embedded phone devices. Some with access to the Web, including Facebook and Twitter. Even voice-activated texting.

Denzel Washington had less to deal with in the movie "Flight" - and he had a co-pilot.

Just as state law enforcement enters its second year of cracking down on hand-held cellphone use while driving, along comes other forms of technology that create their own distraction - and danger.

Forget multi-tasking; this is "multi-asking" for an accident.

"Some of the things out there are more distracting than a cellphone," officer Bill Cassell, a Las Vegas police spokesman, says plainly. "The problem with some of the new technology is that you can't look down the road while you're fiddling with it.

"Along with that, some of the technology is complicated. You start punching buttons where the menus of these things are going to take you, to the point where safe operation of the vehicle can be compromised."

A big part of the problem, says Cassell - supported by the Highway Patrol spokesman, trooper Loy Hixson - is that drivers try to master the technology while driving, rather than doing so in the safety of their garage or on their driveways.

Read the owner's manual first? Fat chance.

For most people, it's on-the-road training.

"Anytime somebody purchases a new 'anything,' there's a learning curve," Cassell says. "The problem is that when you're talking about a vehicle, the most important aspects of driving are handling the (steering) wheel, the speed, the braking, paying attention to what's in front of you and beside you.

"But with this new technology, what's on the dashboard becomes what's important. ... And if people don't know how to already use it, that just compounds the distraction."

For Hixson and his fellow troopers, stopping illegal cellphone use is difficult enough. Now roadway safety is further compromised by drivers distracted with programming their GPS or accessing the Web while their vehicle is in motion.

Even voice-activated technology can be distracting, especially if it requires directing mental focus away from the road for any extended period.

"So many of these things are meant as conveniences, but they're not convenient to being behind the wheel and paying attention to the road," Hixson says.

"We ask drivers to get rid of all distractions. Program your GPS before you leave. Make that important phone call before you leave, and then turn off your phone or don't accept any calls.

"Or, if you're traveling with someone, let your passenger be your co-pilot and handle those things. That way your focus can be on getting you safely where you need to go."

While no laws limit use of the new technology, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association early in 2012 proposed voluntary guidelines to manufacturers.

Suggestions included a recommendation that they design dashboards so that distracting devices are automatically disabled unless the vehicle is stopped and the transmission is in park.

But those recommendations are being brushed aside as even more inventive technology is added to the dashboard arcade.

Driving safely is a personal responsibility. Once the ignition starts, there should be no distraction to that, even with all of the high-tech gadgetry at our disposal.

Questions and comments should be sent to roadwarrior@reviewjournal.com. Please include your phone number. Follow the Road Warrior on Twitter: @RJroadwarrior.