February 20, 2018
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Danger on the Dashboard

Cell phones, text messaging, and e-mailing are bad enough as driving hazards, but now comes something that’s even worse: a whole new array of stuff on your dashboard to keep you from watching the road and minding your driving.

The communications and automobile companies don’t see it that way, of course. Ford’s Jim Buzkowski, director of its global electrical and electronics systems engineering, said, “We are trying to make the driving experience one that is very engaging,” according to The New York Times. “We also want to make sure that it is safer and safer,” he added without irony.

Other brands are doing much the same, but it looks as if the first example we will see on the market will be the MyFord system on the refashioned Focus. Both the automobile companies and the communication companies have their sights set on the 70 million cars sold around the world each year.

MyFord will be something like having a built-in iPhone or Blackberry aboard your car. It will have two screens, one in the center of the instrument panel, controlled by buttons on the steering wheel and providing fuel economy and safety features. The other, a touchscreen in the center of the dashboard, visible by both passenger and driver, will offer entertainment settings, climate control information, and navigation and communications systems.

The auto companies, as usual, say they are giving the consumers what they want, and that’s probably true for the most part. Cell phones and text messaging have fed a common desire to keep instantly in touch with friends, business associates, the news and the Web. People who regard driving simply as a way to get from one place to another without interruption seem to be in a dwindling minority.

Regulators and safety advocates strongly object. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told The New York Times that the companies involved were on the wrong track: “The idea that they’re going to load automobiles up with all kinds of ways to be distracted — that’s not the direction we’re going, and I will speak out against it.” Nice sentiment, but speaking out won’t change consumer demand.

Consumer Reports noted that the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show “overflows with cool new driver distractions.” It disputed an assertion in Ford’s keynote address that just talking on a cell phone doesn’t increase crash risk. The U.S. Department of Transportation defines distraction as a “perfect storm” of three parts: visual, taking your eyes off the road; manual, taking your hands off the wheel; and cognitive, taking your mind off your driving. The auto companies are ignoring all three — at our peril.

If profit-seeking business won’t protect us and government regulators just plan to “speak out,” it will be up to individual consumers to keep their eyes and their hands and their minds engaged — by focusing on driving.

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