Image: Brandi Eadie, 16, texts and drives
Elaine Thompson  /  AP
New driver Brandi Eadie, 16, looks down at her cell phone to read a text message as she drives through a course in Seattle designed to demonstrate the dangers of phone use while driving.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, msnbc.com contributor
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/31/2011 1:59:16 PM ET 2011-03-31T17:59:16

When a dump truck carrying 24 tons of rock salt crashed on I-81 in Pennsylvania recently, police linked the collision, which killed one motorist and injured several others, to distracted driving.

The incident is not unique. A quick search of news headlines for car accidents shows federal regulators linked texting, cellphone use and other forms of distracted driving to 5,500 deaths in 2009 — the latest year for which data is available — and to at least a half million injuries.

“Distracted driving has become a deadly epidemic on America’s roads,” insists U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the country’s leading — and perhaps most outspoken — proponent of rules that would bar drivers from texting, making cell phone calls or using other high-tech devices while behind the wheel of a vehicle.

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Such measures have already been enacted in a number of states across the country. But activists believe these steps don’t go far enough. Some would go so far as to even bar the use of hands-free Bluetooth cell phones, and even some technologies that claim to improve driving safety.

Critics — and not just those involved in the automotive industry — contend that LaHood and his allies are going too far. They question some of the more frightening claims about distracted driving, and they point to the latest federal data showing that, if anything, the number of traffic fatalities has actually fallen quite sharply even as the use of supposedly distracting technologies has risen dramatically.

“If cell phones and all the other new technologies are so dangerous, why aren’t we seeing carnage on the highways?” asked Aaron Bragman, an automotive analyst with the consulting firm IHS. “We’re not. The number of highway fatalities is lower than it has been in years.”

The reality is that both sides do agree on some key issues.

“There’s no disagreement about texting, which is not conducive to safe driving,” emphasized Louis Tijerina, a senior technical specialist with Ford’s advanced engineering department.

Automakers have also come to support — or at least accept — efforts to restrict the use of handheld phones behind the wheel. Some might suggest that’s driven, at least in part, by the profit motive, since it encourages new car buyers to purchase Bluetooth hands-free calling options.

Indeed, Ford credits its voice-activated Sync system with helping generate a significant amount of sales. The technology can program everything from the radio to the navigation system through a touch screen by using steering wheel-mounted controls, or by using your voice.

But despite the carmaker’s claims that the latter method sharply reduces driver distraction, Consumer Reports recently pulled several Ford products — notably the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX crossovers — off its influential Recommended Buy list, insisting their systems were “overly complicated and distracting.”

The magazine isn’t alone in worrying about Bluetooth systems and new voice-activated technologies. A 2006 review of more than 100 experimental studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found plenty of reason for concern.

Former law officer Jack Peet, now AAA Michigan’s Group Traffic Safety Manager, is among the skeptics.

“People often tell me they’re multi-taskers, but driving itself is multi-tasking,” he warned, adding that this is another way to take your attention off your driving.

Peet even questions many of the new technologies designed to improve safety. Active Cruise Control — which uses laser or radar to keep your car running at the same speed as the traffic ahead — encourages motorists to take their eyes off the road, Peet argued. And blind-spot detection systems — which look for traffic you might miss changing lanes — makes drivers lazy, he added.

Some auto industry officials agree that technology can have its downside. When Volvo added the City Safety system to the XC60 crossover the automaker was worried that motorists might think this auto-braking technology could let them focus on things other than driving.

So Volvo made sure that whenever the system kicked in “it would do so quite abruptly,” explained Volvo spokesman Dan Johnston, so “it’s not something you want to depend on to stop your car normally.”

Nonetheless, critics counter the assertion that any form of new technology is a highway menace. Ford’s Tijerina questions whether it’s really more dangerous to be using a voice-controlled navigation system instead of relying on old-fashioned maps, “or simply driving around lost and confused.”

Story: A $380,000 car you can drive every day

He also cautions that many distracted driving studies don’t reflect real-world driving conditions.

“They tend to bias things … to make it very, very difficult,” Tijerina asserts. “Out in the real world people don’t [face] the same level of demand required in these lab and simulator studies,” and they are more likely to take appropriate steps to further reduce risks — like slowing down while dictating an address.

The critics cite studies of their own. There are preliminary reports showing little to no change in accident rates when the use of handheld phones is banned. And the critics routinely point to the highway death toll data to question whether technology is having any impact.

Figures released by the Department of Transportation last autumn recorded 33,808 traffic fatalities for 2009, a 10 percent drop from the year before, despite the fact that motorists drove more. Yet Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood cautioned “it’s not an excuse to rest on our laurels.”

Indeed, if it wasn’t for today’s better-designed cars, improved roadways and specially-trained emergency response teams, “We’d be seeing a significant increase in fatalities,” insists the AAA’s Peet.

How much of a distraction is safe — or at least tolerable — and which technologies enhance or worsen driver safety will likely remain a debate for some time. But with the exception of in-car texting, analyst Bragman doesn’t expect to see major changes in current laws.

LaHood and his supporters, he cautioned, “don’t have the support in Congress, especially with Republicans in control. There isn’t any interest in more regulations.”

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Explainer: What’s old is new again: Muscle is back

  • GM  /  Wieck

    What’s old is new again.

    The year 1969 seems to be in the air in Detroit these days, as crosstown rivals Ford and Chevrolet have revived respected high-performance versions of their popular pony cars that originally debuted the same year Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon.

    There are other revival cars out there too, though they may have been here for a couple years already.

    Here’s a look at the old and new versions of Detroit’s well-loved muscle cars.

  • OLD: 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 302

    Ford

    In the late 1960s Ford sought to shore up the Mustang against its rivals in the Sports Car Club of America’s Trans-American sedan racing series, known as Trans-Am. The result was the Boss 302, a model sold in 1969 and 1970 for the sole purpose of bringing a high-powered, sharp-handling Mustang to showrooms that could win on the racetrack. Stiff springs, adjustable shocks, fatter tires and a high-revving engine delivered the goods. Ford sold 8,641 Boss 302 Mustangs during the two years it was produced, making it one of the most collectable versions of the car. Advertised horsepower was 290 hp, with the 302 cubic inch (5.0-liter in modern terminology) backed by a four-speed manual transmission.

  • NEW: 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302

    Ford  /  Wieck

    Today’s Boss 302 was built with a new mission: defeat the fearsome BMW M3 on the racetrack. Ford execs vowed to approve the project only if the resulting Mustang could lap circuits like Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca faster than the Bavarian rival.

    As they had 42 years earlier, Ford engineers braced the chassis, stiffened the springs and reworked the engine to rev faster than ever. The new 302 V8 is rated at 444 hp. And again the result is a stunningly fast car considering some of the proletarian underpinnings, such as the solid rear axle.

    A test driver for Motor Trend magazine posted a Laguna Seca lap time in the car that was a slim 0.01 seconds slower than that of the exotic Audi R8 V10 by rival Road & Track magazine. The Boss is faster than the Nissan GT-R, Audi R8 4.2 (the V8 version of the car), Chevrolet Corvette Z06, BMW M3 and Porsche Cayman S.

  • OLD: 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

    GM

    Ford wasn’t the only one with a track-centric pony car that debuted in 1969. Chevrolet rolled out the Camaro ZL1 the same year.

    This car was more the result of ingenuity than planned intent. Unlike the Boss, the ZL1 wasn’t designed by anyone to do anything. Instead, it was the result of a creative Illinois Chevrolet dealer who ordered 50 Camaros equipped with the company’s aluminum block 427 cubic-inch racing engine code-named ZL1.

    A few other dealers caught on to the idea and 69 of the cars were built with then engine which was officially rated at 430 horsepower, but which was tested to produce more than 500 hp.

    The $4,200 racing engine doubled the price of the Camaro, so they weren’t terribly popular with regular customers, but drag racers appreciated the car’s ability to rocket down the strip in just 11 seconds.

  • NEW: 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

    GM  /  Wieck

    The new Camaro ZL1 will hit showrooms early next year, and like the new Boss 302, it packs even more power than the original, even taking the fudge factor on the old car’s rating into account.

    The 2012 Camaro ZL1 uses a supercharger to produce at least 550 hp (the official number hasn’t been finalized yet). The 6.2-liter V8 and six-speed manual transmission are similar to those seen on the Corvette ZR1 and Cadillac CTS-V, and the adjustable magnetic ride shock absorber technology also carries over from the Corvette.

    The result is the most technologically advanced Camaro ever, and while the company hasn’t announced a specific performance target, it is safe to assume that Chevy’s engineering team would very much like to unseat the Boss 302’s lap times at the track.

  • OLD: 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Z06

    GM

    In the early 1960s, American car makers had agreed not to officially back racing with “factory” teams. But the companies had customers who still wanted to race their cars, and so they wanted for those teams to win.

    Sports car racing teams wanted the fastest possible Corvette to challenge Ferrari and Carroll Sheby’s Cobras, and Chevrolet obliged by offering Regular Production Option code Z06 for the Corvette. Checking that option on the ‘Vette’s order sheet caused the factory to install a 360-hp 327 cubic-inch V8, M21 four-speed manual transmission, stiffer springs, shocks and swaybars, racing-grade drum brakes (the Corvette didn’t yet have disc brakes), aluminum wheels and a huge 36.5-gallon gas tank for endurance races.

    At $5,975, Chevy found just 199 customers for the Z06 in 1963.

  • NEW: 2011 Chevrolet Corvette Z06

    GM  /  Wieck

    By 2001, Chevrolet was ready to roll out a higher-performing version of the Corvette to defend the car’s reputation against the Dodge Viper, which had claimed the performance high ground. The company reached into its archives and dusted off the Z06 moniker. That meant the usual steps of installing a more powerful engine and stiffening the suspension to upgrade track performance, while leaving the base model with its softer springs and available automatic transmission for the boulevard cruisers.

    Today Chevrolet still offers the Corvette Z06, though its position as the pinnacle of Corvette performance has since been superseded by the supercharged Corvette ZR1. So the 2011 Z06 is the top-performing normally aspirated Corvette model, with a 427 cubic-inch V8 (7.0-liters) cranking out 505 hp, propelling the car to a top speed of 198 mph. Widespread use of lightweight carbon fiber and magnesium whittles the Z06’s mass to 3,175 lbs. a total that is unheard-of among today’s crop of porky performance models. If that’s not enough, an available performance package brings the wheels, tires, shocks and brakes from the ZR1 for maximum handling and braking.

  • OLD: 1968 Dodge Charger R/T

    Dodge

    Dodge debuted the fastback-styled intermediate-sized Charger in 1966, using a design originally planned for Chrysler’s turbine car, which did not reach production. But a refreshed design in 1968 tripled Charger sales, and along with the new sheetmetal came a new high-performance option, the R/T, which stood for Road/Track.

    The R/T’s base engine was the 375-hp 440 Magnum, but the optional 425-hp 426 Hemi with two four-barrel carburetors was the legendary pinnacle of the line, with a top speed of 156 mph, according to a test of the car by Car and Driver magazine.

    With modest changes the following year, the 1969 Charger gained later fame in garish citric paint as the street-going racecar “General Lee” on the popular weekly 1980s television drama “The Dukes of Hazard.”

  • NEW: 2011 Dodge Charger R/T

    OWEN  /  Dodge

    To the widespread dismay of enthusiasts, when the Dodge Charger returned to the company’s lineup, it was not as a swoopy coupe, but as a pug-faced four-door sedan. Dodge assuaged the ruffled feathers with an R/T model meant to confirm the Charger’s faithfulness to the original in terms of performance, if not appearance.

    For 2011 the Charger R/T is powered by a 370-hp 5.7-liter Hemi V8 that, in a nod to modern realities, switches to a fuel-saving four-cylinder mode when all those horses aren’t needed. Another modern reality is customer disinterest in manual transmissions, so in a divergence from the original as shocking as the new car’s blocky styling, there is no manual transmission available.

    But there is all-wheel-drive, giving snow-plagued drivers their first realistic opportunity to own a normally rear-drive American muscle car as a year-round daily driver. And for those who feel today’s R/T is lacking in power compared to the original, there is always the 425-hp 6.1-liter SRT8 version.

  • OLD: 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T

    Dodge

    The midsized Charger was a good muscle car, but was too big to be a natural competitor to Ford and Chevy’s Mustang and Camaro “pony” cars, so in 1970 Dodge launched the smaller Challenger to take them on. As with the Charger, an R/T high-performance model led the way.

    In addition to the Charger R/T’s two engines the 1970 Challenger added a third option: a 390-hp version of the 440 Magnum engine topped by three two-barrel carburetors in place of the single four-barrel on the 375-hp engine.

    The Challenger survived in this form only until 1974, but its legend was strong enough to spawn a new Challenger modeled after the original in 2008.

  • NEW: 2011 Dodge Challenger R/T

    Bill Delaney  /  Dodge

    The 2011 Challenger R/T is a stirring tribute to the original car, mimicking its styling cues. Gearheads will appreciate that Dodge stuck to the original’s attitude in making a six-speed manual transmission available to go with the 376-hp 6.2-liter Hemi V8 engine, though there is also an automatic transmission available.

    Even with the ability to rocket to 60 mph from a standstill in less than six seconds, the Hemi-powered Challenger scores 25 mpg on the EPA’s highway fuel economy test thanks to cylinder deactivation technology that lets it cruise on four cylinders.

    But if passing competitors is more important than passing gas pumps, a new top-of-the-line Challenger SRT8 392 Hemi edition offers a stunning 470 hp that brings 60 mph on the speedometer in less than five seconds.

Vote: Vote: Do distracted driving measures go far enough?

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