Drivers Will Now Have the Ultimate Distraction While Driving: The Internet

Between talking on cell phones, texting (now illegal in Colorado), eating, personal grooming, adjusting ipods and other dangerous behaviors, drivers will now have the ultimate gadget to compete for their attention while behind the wheel.

Automakers and technology companies have teamed up to provide consumers with the ultimate distraction – a full functioning, internet connected computer on car dashboards.

Last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, car makers unveiled their “infotainment” systems, featuring a 10-inch, high definition screen on the dashboard capable of showing videos, 3-D maps and web pages. Audi and Ford are among the forerunners that will have cars available later this year with in-dash computers.

Safety advocates are concerned about the impact these “infotainment” systems will have on already distracted drivers. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), nearly 6,000 deaths and an estimated 515,000 injuries were caused by drivers who were distracted in 2008.

From the NY Times:
“This is irresponsible at best and pernicious at worst,” says Nicholas A. Ashford, a professor of technology and policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of the new efforts to marry cars and computers. “Unfortunately and sadly, it is a continuation of the pursuit of profit over safety – for both drivers and pedestrians.”

Ford’s systems includes temperature adjustment, hands-free telephone use and wi-fi web access, however they claim the internet capabilities only work while the vehicle is parked. Audi has plans to implement a similar safety feature. But, in the end, it is the driver who is responsible for the extent to which they will use this system while driving.

Another concern, among safety advocates is that because the technology is so new, there’s not any significant testing required. Serious liability issues could arise if a driver caused a car crash while engaged in use of the in-dash computer. Who’s to blame…the driver or the car company for creating a system that is too complicated to use while driving? In order to reduce the time a driver is looking at the screen, both Ford and Audi claim they have tested and adjusted their systems. Technology companies are generally passing the buck to the automakers.

From the NY Times:
Darrin Shewchuk, a spokesman for Harman, says that while his company is working on technology that would increase safety such as voice systems to listen to and composing e-mail messages, he continues, “generally speaking, the safety testing is really the responsibility of the automakers.”

While it’s amazing what technology has to offer consumers in 2010, it’s distressing to consider what impact these “infotainment” systems will have on traffic safety. It’s unlikely that Internet use while driving will be banned anytime soon, so it will be up to the consumer to self-police themselves. And we know how well that worked in 2008 – nearly 6,000 deaths and 515,000 injuries were caused by distracted drivers.