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updated: 2/10/2014 4:55 AM

Experts: Connected cars bring dangerous distractions

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  • Safety advocates warn all that dashboards offer these days can be dangerously distracting. A U.S. Senate committee held a round table discussion last week entitled "Over-Connected and Behind the Wheel."

      Safety advocates warn all that dashboards offer these days can be dangerously distracting. A U.S. Senate committee held a round table discussion last week entitled "Over-Connected and Behind the Wheel."
    Courtesy of Chevrolet

 
 

I'm driving along, laughing over something a friend just posted, when suddenly I have a craving for a latte. Where to go? I check the display on my dashboard and Beanhunter finds three nearby coffee shops, but I'll have to make a quick right. Oops. Where did that minivan come from?

Ah, the connected car. Yes, you can update Facebook, search Foursquare for good sushi and turn up the heat at home all from the comfort of your automobile.

Too bad driving gets in the way. Which begs the question: Are we multi-tasking ourselves all the way to the hospital?

"The more drivers are involved in nondriving tasks, the more we will see crashes go up," said David Teater, a senior director with the Itasca-based National Safety Council.

"Cognitive psychologists have looked at this for years -- the human brain cannot do more than one challenging activity at a time. It switches back and forth."

Connected cars were all the rage at the Chicago Auto Show's media preview Thursday and awards were given to vehicles that offered the "right mix of safety, convenience and infotainment technology."

In a bit of serendipity, the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held a round-table the same day entitled "Over-Connected and Behind the Wheel," with auto industry, safety advocates and technology companies present.

"This is a profound public-safety issue that is literally a matter of life or death," Sen. Jay Rockefeller said. "As your companies build infotainment systems for drivers, are you seriously considering whether the activities those systems allow is appropriate?

"I think it is irresponsible for companies to feed into consumers' almost pathological need for connectivity without regard for the safety implications. The car is a unique environment -- it's not a park bench or a subway station -- and the driver's attention is needed on the road," the West Virginia Democrat added.

Consider the following:

One auto manufacturer promotes a connected car that helps "you stay in touch with the outside world from inside your vehicle. It's loaded with features and compatibility with a growing list of apps that let you play your music, keep tabs on your social network and navigate any city like a local."

Another tells drivers "you can stay in touch and up to date safely with hands-free calling."

The idea that hands-free calling is safe disturbs Teater, who testified before the Senate panel Thursday. "If we continue down the current path of enabling drivers to engage in all sorts of infotainment and communications activities, we may be normalizing a dangerous practice that will be difficult to unwind in the future," he said.

The National Safety Council has embarked on a campaign to educate drivers about the dangers of cognitive distractions. The state's new law banning hand-held cellphone use by drivers doesn't go far enough, the group argues. Instead the legislature should also prohibit drivers from using hands-free cellphones, which is just as distracting, they think.

Research has shown that drivers absorbed in cellphone conversations only recall 50 percent of the objects they pass on the road.

Carnegie Mellon University scientists took MRI images of the brains of study participants who drove on a simulator while listening to statements made on a cellphone. Next, they were asked to determine if the sentences were true or false. The images demonstrated less activity in areas of the brain used for vision, navigation and judging distance.

Teater stressed that the NSC is not "anti-technology." He applauded innovations such as lane deviation warnings and forward-crash avoidance systems that will help save lives.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation said it will require auto manufacturers to install technology that lets cars and trucks warn each other if a crash is imminent. The vehicle-to-vehicle technology would use radio signals to transmit information and could prevent 80 percent of accidents that don't involve an impaired driver or mechanical problems. No date has been set yet for the rule to go into effect.

"We ought to invest everything into this," Teater said. "Too much of the focus today seems to be on providing drivers with the same features and connectivity as they have on their smartphones."

What do you think about the connected car? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Our winner

Congratulations to reader Caren Hill who won two tickets to the Chicago Auto Show after writing in with her can't-miss car -- the 2015 Ford Mustang.

Gridlock alert

I-88 road warriors should watch out for soil boring work going on at Highland Avenue on Monday.

Upcoming

The Chicago Auto Show runs 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. through Sunday, Feb. 16, and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 17, at McCormick Place, 2301 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago. Ticket prices are $12 for adults; seniors and kids age 7 to 12 are $6. Children 6 and under are free.

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