New peril in driver's seat: films on DVD

As GPS screens proliferate, more drivers pass the time by watching movies.

Sitting in traffic is boring - and in the modern bustle of multitasking, time lost means myriad tasks undone. But for many drivers these days, idle driving is as passé as the Model T - and the possibilities for lost hours have gone far beyond books on tape. The latest option: watching movies.

That's what prosecutors say Erwin J. Petterson Jr. was doing when his pickup truck crossed Alaska's double yellow line and ran head-on into a Jeep, killing two people. Now he's is slated to become the first person in the US to go to trial for allegedly watching a movie - "Road Trip" - while driving. Installed in the dashboard was a DVD player with a flip-up screen. Mr. Petterson says he was listening to music.

In one sense, it's an age-old problem: Distractions have always crept up on drivers, from applying makeup and disciplining kids to consulting maps and untangling curlers from hair. But in this era of cellphones and DVDs, the car threatens to become an electronic playpen.

Of course, such devices aren't really meant for drivers. But several electronics companies are building the units, including Alpine, Kenwood, Pioneer, and Clarion, primarily as after-market substitutes for factory GPS navigation systems. More than 120,000 units were sold in 2002, and about 180,000 in 2003, costing between $2,000 and $4,000 each.

With external screens, these devices are designed to play movies and placate kids in the back seat. But since all the hardware for DVD navigation systems also works to play movies, there's wide concern that these may make cellphones look like child's play, as far as hazardous driving goes.

All the systems offer safety interlocks that prevent the dashboard screen from showing movies unless the car is in "park" or the parking brake is on. But "if you have a basic understanding of electronics," you can defeat the safety mechanism, says Todd Cliff, a car-stereo installer with 13 years' experience at Rich's Car Tunes in Waltham, Mass. Some manufacturers even offer kits to play movies on the dashboard screen, designed for installations in boats or other places where wiring to parking brakes or transmissions isn't possible.

Mr. Cliff says that 40 to 50 percent of the stereos he sells can play movies. "Most of our older clientele just wants to use the navigation system," he says. "But a lot of the younger customers ask us to bypass the safety [interlock]."

He says the shop can't do that, but on highway trips to North Carolina and around Massachusetts, he's seen lots of front seats doubling as movie theaters.

Online discussion groups for Subaru Imprezas, Mazda Miatas, and Dodge Dakotas all list questions from owners about how to defeat the safety system to allow movies to play while driving.

At car audio shows around the country, parking lots are full of pop-out front-seat DVD screens. No one knows how many are hooked up to play movies while driving - and adjusting them to do so is illegal.

Though 39 states specifically prohibit the installation of DVD entertainment systems in the front seat, 13 make accommodations for drivers' navigation screens.

Today's drivers are impatient with traffic. If they hit a snag, many want to make up the time - by preparing for work, making phone calls, or watching movies - says John "Bugsy" Lawlor, the technical adviser to CarTalk on National Public Radio. "We have the attention spans of gnats, and the expectation is always multitasking. In the 1960s, cars didn't even have cup holders. [Now that they do], the reality is that just gives us one more hand to eat a cheeseburger."

Mr. Lawlor has a DVD system in his dashboard, but says he uses only the navigation system while driving: "I use it to watch movies when I go shopping with my wife and she's trying out for the shopping marathon. I watch a movie in the parking lot."

There are no statistics on drivers who have been distracted by the systems, though more than 25 percent of accidents - or 4,000 a day - are attributed to driver distraction, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHSTA).

In another recent study by the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS), 19 percent of drivers said cellphones were distracting, while 47 percent recalled adjusting car controls and 29 percent noted eating or reading; 72 percent listed turning around to talk to passengers or argue with kids as distracting.

The peril isn't only DVDs, but "anything that takes your minds or hands away from Job 1, which is driving - it's a no-brainer," says Liz Neblett, a NHTSA spokeswoman.

Avoiding that is the driver's responsibility, says Matt Swanston, a spokesman for the trade group Consumer Electronics Association. "All these things can be used safely ... if they're used the way they're designed," he adds, and the tools do offer a promise of safety: Verbal directions from an electronic navigation system, for instance, are far less distracting than paper maps.

For their part, automakers take a variety of approaches. Many offer factory-installed DVD entertainment systems with screens in the back seats as well as separate systems with navigation screens in the dashboard. In many cars the front-seat screen doubles as the display for a rear-view camera while backing up. And though most automakers allow navigation systems to be programmed while the car is moving - for example to accept a new destination - a few, such as Lexus, lock out navigation commands when moving faster than 5 miles per hour, frustrating the efforts of passengers in the right front seat to engage the system on the fly.

Still, says Mr. Swanston, "You can't legislate or mechanically dictate safe driving."

Other experts agree. "You can outlaw movies and talking on cellphones," says Lawlor. "Do you have to outlaw talking to passengers and disciplining kids too? Where are you going to stop?"

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