NBC News correspondent
updated 7/12/2005 8:46:17 PM ET 2005-07-13T00:46:17

It may not be surprising that people using cell phones while driving can sometimes get themselves into trouble. According to an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study, cell phone users, even with hands-free devices, were four times more likely to be involved in serious accidents .

But cell phones may only be part of the problem.

“It’s really the mental, the cognitive distraction from thinking about something else other than the driving task,” says Ann McCartt with the institute.

In a lot of cars today, that's all too easy. As car makers cram more technology into vehicles — from DVD players and navigation systems to MP3 players — the question is: How do you keep your eyes on the road ahead when you're constantly looking at the dashboard?

Montgomery County, Md., realtor Val Puddington depends on her cell phone, insisting, “To me it's not distracting. If I was not able to talk on the phone in the car, that would greatly impair my ability to do my job as well as I have.”

Cars are rolling off production lines with so many new devices these days that the car industry actually has a name for it. It's called HMI, or "human-machine interface". Automakers say they try to design car interiors with devices that won't distract drivers for more than two seconds at a time.

“There's a lot of focus on high technology, but the fact is that low-technology distractions like the kids fighting in the back seat can be the most powerful,” says Gloria Bergquist with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

While much has been made of cell phone use in cars, researchers have yet to determine how much other devices impact driving.

“Drivers are engaged in distracting behaviors of one kind or another a lot of the time,” says McCartt. “The key is: Are those distracting behaviors going to lead to a crash?”

For now, industry researchers and car makers agree that multitasking drivers multiply their risk every time they hit the road.

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