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posted: 4/9/2012 5:55 AM

Experts talk about the new dangers of driving and electronic distraction

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  • Firefighters and police work a September 2008 accident near North Aurora that officials believe may have been caused by distracted driving. Strategies to reduce distracted driving were the focus of a recent forum conducted by the National Safety Transportation Board.

    Firefighters and police work a September 2008 accident near North Aurora that officials believe may have been caused by distracted driving. Strategies to reduce distracted driving were the focus of a recent forum conducted by the National Safety Transportation Board.
    Photo courtesy of the Kane County Sheriff's Depart

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He's a Springsteen guy, not an Adele fan. So John Lee had no choice but to scroll through the song list to get past his wife's pop favorites.

Oops. Forgot about that driving thing.

"I took my eyes away from the road much, much too long. Three, four, five seconds," Lee said with regret.

We've all been there.

But here's the thing: Lee's a mechanical engineer. A PhD. Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Co-editor of "Driver Distraction: Theory, Effect and Mitigation."

"I was seduced in the moment by technology," Lee said recently at a National Transportation Safety Board distracted driving forum in Washington, D.C.

The NTSB went out on a limb in late 2011 and recommended a total ban on cellphone use -- both hands-free and hand-held -- by drivers.

"I never talk on my cellphone in the car and yet I was inadvertently tempted to do something much more distracting," Lee confessed.

"Vehicle entertainment systems may seem like old technology -- like the radio -- but they aren't. It's very different," he said.

Here are some intriguing points from the NTSB's daylong forum held just in time for April -- Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

• Auto manufacturers are spitting out cars with dashboards that resemble a hybrid of an airplane instrument panel and a smartphone. The result is driver overload, some experts said.

"We're moving from cars as we know them to computers on the road ... dramatically complex cars that are changing the nature of driving," Lee said.

At the same time, some automakers are manufacturing high-end vehicles with crash and lane-departure warning systems.

"Technology is part of the problem. It has the potential to be part of the solution," NTSB board member Mark Rosekind said after the webcast conference.

But, he notes, the danger of such systems is that they can make drivers lazy.

"The trick is how to keep drivers actively engaged instead of passively engaged," Rosekind said.

• Technologies, such as apps for your smartphone, are snowballing faster than law enforcement or lawmakers can keep up with.

"The pace of change is daunting and far outstrips the regulatory response," Lee testified.

"There are hundreds of thousands of smartphone apps that have been developed -- over 500,000 apps for the iPhone alone -- and many are designed to be used while driving. Some are designed not to be used while driving, but drivers use them anyway."

• The proliferation of texting by young teenagers is a trend parents should watch, said University of Iowa researcher Daniel McGehee. He cited a Nielsen Co. study showing teen girls sending and receiving an average of 3,952 texts a month, while teen boys had 2,800, on average.

"Young drivers are selecting to be distracted, checking if that text message come through right when they're entering a complicated on-ramp and so forth," McGehee said. "Teens think they're great multi-taskers, but they're not."

• If you lock your cellphone in the trunk but continue to eat/apply makeup/peruse the music options while driving, you're still a hazard.

"If we focus too much on cellphones it sends the message that some forms of distraction are OK and others are not," said James Sayer, a professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Center.

Sayer makes a point that I've heard before from readers. I asked NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman why the board is so focused on cellphones.

"The prevalence of electronic devices is exploding across our society," Hersman said. "I think the norm used to be attentive drivers occasionally changing the radio, occasionally eating. Now distractions compete full time for the driver's attention. It's phone calls coming in, it's text messages demanding attention.

"We've got to figure a way to shut that down."

What do you think? Email me at

Your voice

People are still sore about an audit of state agencies that showed employees abusing or underusing the perk of take-home cars.

Reader Roger Dart of Deerfield thinks that "in the face of the severity of cuts that are being imposed across the spectrum of Illinois' budget, it seems only logical that the people who work in our state agencies bear their share of the belt-tightening process. The abuse of the benefit of access to an automobile is an unacceptable practice regardless of the condition of our economic climate."

Gridlock alert

Jane Addams road warriors should watch out for bridge inspection work slowing traffic down today on I-90 between Route 31 and Route 25.

You should know

So many people enjoy going rogue and riding on the shoulder in Pace's I-55 express buses that the agency is increasing service. Routes 755 and 855 can ride on the Stevenson Expressway shoulder when traffic conditions warrant. Ridership is up and on-time performance shot up from 68 percent to 92 percent. Buses travel from the western suburbs, including Burr Ridge and Bolingbrook, to the Illinois Medical District, University of Illinois at Chicago and Union Station, depending on which route. For information about schedules, visit


Can our cars run on aspidistras? Argonne National Laboratory experts may have that answer Thursday. Scientists will give a free talk on how plants can be a new energy source and fix pollution. There's a reception at 6:30 p.m. followed by the lecture at Argonne, 9700 S. Cass Ave., Lemont. Advance registration is required. To sign up, go to

One more thing

Does turning on the keys of your car make you wax poetic? Put that creative energy to good use by writing about your relationship with driving for the Esurance Poems of the Road Contest. First prize is $2,000. Deadline is April 30. For more information, visit

There's another contest rule. If you do submit a poem, send it to In Transit at and we'll run our own in-house poetry slam.

It could be a Haiku, such as:

"My first car's brakes went

On a Dan Ryan exit

Thank you Chevrolet."

Or a rhyming couplet:

"It was a used mint-green Malibu

After thousands in repairs, now I buy new."

Transit: Poem could garner you $2,000 in contest

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