High-tech car gadgets distracting, experts say
One of the best things about media day at the Chicago Auto Show is the hyperbole.
Where else would you hear "it's got Alfa Romeo DNA with Dodge passion" to describe the reinvented Dodge Dart?
Roses are red, violets are blue. Will pests on that bouquet ruin Valentine's Day for you? Hopefully not. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialists in the Chicago region inspected more than 82 air shipments with 3.2 million flowers in 2011. The target? Foreign insects that can infest local crops. As of Feb. 9, specialists had intercepted more than 50 pests on cut flowers, the agency reported.
But one superlative may have backfired.
As GMC unveiled the new 2013 Acadia, executives hyped a number of "infotainment" features.
Once you plug your smartphone in, the Acadia's computer system will "read incoming texts to you ... so you don't have to take your eyes off the road," a GMC engineer explained.
Sounds good — but studies show hands-free devices are just as dangerous as hand-held when you're behind the wheel. In other words, if you're driving and arguing with your teenager or trying to finalize a sale, you're mentally distracted regardless of whether the conversation is on speakerphone or not.
I asked the GMC reps about cognitive distractions.
"This (technology) is going to make (driving) much safer," engineer Susan Eckel said. "Between keeping your eyes on the road and just touching the buttons on your steering wheel — you don't have to be distracted and you shouldn't be looking at the radio and looking at your phone."
Not so fast, safety experts say.
"This is a definite trend among automakers," said Joel Cooper, a University of Utah psychologist and research assistant professor specializing in distracted driving.
He's in the midst of a study, sponsored by AAA, looking at the effects of hands-free systems on brain function.
According to preliminary analysis, "it doesn't look good," Cooper said.
Early findings show cognitive impairment equal to or greater than talking to a passenger or listening to a book on tape with hands-free and vision-free systems.
"There is some cause for concern," Cooper said. "Cognitive distraction is not trivial."
The issue is also on the radar of the Itasca-based National Safety Council.
"The difficulty for auto manufacturers is people are coming into the showrooms and wanting new technology," said David Teater, NSC senior director for transportation strategic initiatives.
Auto manufacturers are meeting those demands, claiming that since people will talk on cellphones, update Facebook and text regardless, they "might as well make it safer," Teater said, adding, "I don't buy into that premise."
"Until cars can drive themselves, drivers should engage primarily in the task of driving the vehicle," Teater said. "The more we enable them to not do that, the greater the risk we take with people on our roadways."
Meanwhile, state Rep. John D'Amico is tackling the issue of hand-held devices. The Chicago Democrat sponsored a bill banning drivers from using hand-held electronic communications devices, as in cellphones, that passed the Transportation: Vehicles and Safety Committee Wednesday.
The proposal strengthens an Illinois law prohibiting texting and driving, and it found favor with Arlington Heights Republican state Rep. David Harris.
"Cellphones have become pervasive and we have all seen people making a turn with the one hand while they speak with the other hand on the cellphone. And frankly, it's incredibly dangerous," Harris told our Springfield reporter Ryan Voyles. "So driving while holding a cellphone in your hand has become a serious, serious problem."
D'Amico has acknowledged it won't be easy to pass the bill but thinks momentum is on his side. The National Transportation Safety Board in late 2011 called for a ban on all types of cellphone and electronic communication device use by drivers.
"I know there is opposition ... people saying we shouldn't try to regulate this kind of stuff, and I understand that logic. But the danger of operating a motor vehicle while being so distracted has come to the point where it needs to be addressed," Harris said.
What do you think? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You should know
The U.S. House Ways and Means Committee approved a five-year $206 billion transportation bill earlier this month to a chorus of opposition from local transit leaders.
The measure would eliminate using about 3 cents of the 18-cent gas tax for transit, paying for commuter bus and train systems through general funds instead.
This will put the CTA, Metra and Pace in financial jeopardy, Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Joe Costello said.
Under the proposal, transit would be "thrown to the lions," Costello said. "If the money has to come out of general revenues, we'll end up competing with education and other worthy causes."
At stake is about $450 million for capital projects, including new rail cars for Metra and the Chicago Transit Authority and bridge repairs on the Union Pacific North Line.
Meanwhile, a Senate committee is offering up a $109 billion two-year transportation funding package. The issue heats up even more this week when the House and Senate bills are scheduled for votes.
Bill Groskopf of Libertyville appreciated that I mentioned the reborn Dodge Dart in a Chicago Auto Show article last week. But he politely objected to my disrespecting the Dart of yore.
"I must, however, take issue when you referred to the previous Dodge Dart (1960 to 1975) as 'much-maligned,'" Groskopf wrote. "The original Dart and its Plymouth twin, the Valiant, were without exception reliable and comfortable family cars. The transmissions and the engines, the slant six and small V-8s, were bulletproof. I remember these cars well and really have no idea where the phrase 'much-maligned' came from."
Just don't let it be the 8:17 downtown — That's my reaction to Metra's announcement that it's considering minor changes to the BNSF Line schedule. The adjustments can be found at metrarail.com. In most cases, the tweaks will be from two to five minutes.
To comment on the proposed changes, click on "contact us" on the website, send an email to email@example.com or call (312) 322-6777 on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tri-State stalwarts should beware utility work between Balmoral Avenue and the O'Hare interchange today through Wednesday.
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