The Most Dangerous Drivers

Regaining Our Senses

Local and state laws are starting to address the technology piece of the problem. Nine states now ban talking on handheld cell phones (28 states ban all cell-phone use for novice drivers), and 30 states have outlawed texting while driving, reports the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). And drivers are indeed getting tickets if they violate these laws. The only glitch? Laws requiring hands-free devices over handheld ones don't seem to improve driver safety. "There's been no apparent reduction in the number of crashes," says Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the IIHS. "We don't fully understand why that is."

It may be, in part, because an object doesn't need to physically be in your hand to be an interference. A built-in DVD player, for example, can be deadly if a parent tries to restart Up in heavy traffic. "However, it can also reduce driver distractions if it keeps a young child content," points out McCartt. Monkeying around with your GPS while navigating in a strange neighborhood is dicey -- but then again, safely using a voice-activated unit is a big improvement over struggling with a map.

Experts hope that new technology will help drivers change their ways. For months after he hit his neighbor, Matt Howard couldn't shake his distress. "I kept thinking, I am not trying to be a menace to society. But if I'm that addicted to my mobile device -- if I can't help myself when I hear that little 'ding' that says I have e-mail -- how can I stop myself? What is the equivalent of Nicorette for someone like me?" That led the father of three to create ZoomSafer, a mobile-phone application (see "De-Fang Your Phone," on page 5).

Meanwhile, car companies are trying to design safer vehicles. Ford's SYNC system, for example, allows drivers to request a song on their iPod or make a phone call with voice commands, says John Shutko, a technical specialist with Ford. "We even designed our DVD player so that it is almost impossible to program by reaching back from the front seat, just to take that temptation away from parents," he explains.

Honda has solutions, too, some of them decidedly low-tech, including a fold-down trash ring in the backseat of its Odyssey minivan. "It sounds like a minor thing, but kids always seem to want to hand off their garbage, and having the trash bag where they can reach it reduces the distraction for the driver," says Chris Martin, a Honda spokesperson.

New Subarus come with Bluetooth for hands-free phone calls, and radio controls are right on the steering wheel. Clocks are now higher up on the dashboard to minimize the need to look away from the road, says Ken Lin, director of product management. Some owners aren't thrilled with these features, he says. "You can't program our GPS while the car is moving -- you have to pull over. We get calls all the time asking about how to disable that feature, but it's just not safe to do so."

The next time you go car-shopping, ask dealers about anti-distraction designs, which may include steering-wheel controls, voice-activated telephones and driving features, and new devices called "conversation mirrors," which are placed on the ceiling and allow you to quickly glance up and see who's pinching whom.

In the future, cars will be designed with even more safety features. In Japan, Subarus are already equipped with adaptive cruise control, which automatically maintains a safe distance between you and the car in front of you, and sensors that detect when you've crossed a lane marker without using a turn signal. (Pricier brands, including Mercedes-Benz, already offer such features in many of their vehicles in the U.S.)

But changing your ingrained habits isn't easy, especially if you consider your drives to be quality family time, as many parents do. "The majority of time I spend with my kids is during our commute -- when they are very needy, tired, and hungry," says Vosdoganes. "They want to tell me about their day. They want gum. They want me to turn on Radio Disney, and they want the exact song they like to be on."

Still, Vosdoganes realizes that she is constantly under the microscope because her children are now old enough to point out her moving violations. "We don't know exactly at what age children begin absorbing their parents' driving habits, but we are certain it starts very early," says Dr. Tijerina. In the same way that they repeat the bad words you may say, you can be certain your kids are soaking in your worst driving habits.

"My children scold me and say, 'You're not supposed to text and drive,'" says Vosdoganes. "I tell them that I really am trying to change. I say, 'I want you to be safe drivers when you grow up.'"

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