By Roland Jones Business news editor
msnbc.com
updated 8/1/2006 3:11:03 PM ET 2006-08-01T19:11:03

Drivers talking on their cell phones — it’s every motorist’s pet peeve. After all, which of us doesn’t have a story about another driver who, cell phone to their ear and engrossed in conversation, has carelessly weaved their way across our path.

But when it comes to gadgets, cell phones are so last century. A new generation of technological devices — from BlackBerries to iPods to multi-channel satellite radios — are distracting today’s drivers. And they’re compounding the dangers of driver distraction.

A recent poll by online automotive marketplace Autobytel shows that nearly 40 percent of drivers have typed a text message as they drive, while 30 percent said they have driven while using their iPods with headphones. Fifty-five percent of those polled admitted to taking both hands off the wheel because they were fiddling with high-tech gadgets.

Not surprisingly, when asked to describe their experience with in-vehicle gadgets and driver safety, 88 percent of the respondents in the Autobytel study described it as either a moderate or serious safety threat, and 40 percent said today’s tech-distracted drivers are “out of control.” Even more sobering: Of all the drivers polled, 15 percent said they’ve actually caused or come close to causing an accident while distracted by technology.

As cell phones and other electronic communications gadgets become ever more omnipresent, evidence is mounting that shows they contribute to automobile crashes. Between 20 and 30 percent of all motor vehicle crashes in the United States are caused in part by driver distraction according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). And when it comes to cell phones, a 2002 Harvard Center for Risk Analysis study estimated that the use of cell phones may cause some 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries on U.S. roads each year.

In fact, a recent study by the National Center for Statistics and Analysis of the NHTSA shows the use of cell phones in cars is increasing, up from 5 percent of drivers using them nationwide in 2004 compared with 6 percent in 2005. The 2005 survey found that at any given daylight moment, an estimated 10 percent of vehicles is driven by a driver using some type of phone, whether hand-held or hands-free.

As gadgets pose an increasing threat to our lives, they are also becoming the target of legislators. In California, for example, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has breathed new life into stalled state legislation to ban hand-held cell phone use while driving, saying in an interview broadcast on the Internet that the practice is dangerous and should be stopped.

The legislation requires motorists in California to use hands-free devices. If the bill is approved by the state’s Assembly and signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger it would make driving using a cell phone an infraction and liable for a $20 fine for a first offense and $50 for each subsequent offense. The rule would take effect in July, 2008. Similar laws are already in place in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington, D.C.

The measures are crucial, but they may not go far enough. According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Utah who monitored 40 men and women on a driving simulator, drivers who talk on cell phones may be just as dangerous as those who drink and drive. And drivers who use hands-free devices fare no better than those drivers using handsets.

And most drivers continue to use cell phones as they drive, even as they say they are aware of the dangers they pose.

According to the Autobytel poll, 84 percent of drivers use their cell phone while driving, even though 70 percent of them concede it’s unsafe. The majority of those drivers — 56 percent — say they use their phones for merely “personal” reasons, for the occasional chat, while 28 percent say they primarily talk and drive for emergencies. Only 16 percent say they’re using their cell phones for business.

“The really interesting thing is people are saying they know they shouldn’t drive and use a cell phone at the same time, but the reality is some people have an hour commute and they can’t go that long without making a call,” said Brian Chee, managing editor of Autobytel.com, a Web site for car information. “It seems that no matter how much we tell people to stop, they’ll keep doing it.”

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