Helping Distracted Drivers?

Actor Johnny Depp, left, and singer Patti Smith attend The Museum of Modern Art's film benefit tribute to Tim Burton, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2009, in New York. AP

Inside the Ford Motor Company is a device right out of science fiction. It's actually a highly sophisticated lab to measure driver distraction. Ford calls this contraption "Virttex" Virtual Test Track Experiment. It is the way the automaker is tackling accidents cause by distracted drivers, head on.

Lab director Jeff Greenberg took The Early Show National Correspondent Jon Frankel for a test drive.

Asked to dial his office using the handheld phone, Frankel says it's not easy being under the microscope knowing every eye movement, every response to a swerving car is being closely monitored.

Out in the real world, a recent study by the Triple A followed drivers for two years and even with full knowledge that cameras were rolling, drivers did what drivers often do...

  • Read behind the wheel....
  • Write behind the wheel....
  • And eat behind the wheel.

A tape made by Ford shows a man driving while eating a bagel, talking on his cell phone, and downloading e-mail from a PC, while a computerized voice shouts instructions and another voice says, 'you've got mail.' It is a spoof of how easily drivers can get distracted.

But for many drivers - and you know who you are - this isn't too much of an exaggeration.

American roads are filled with distracted drivers, or as some may call them, "accidents waiting to happen," since almost a third of all crashes can be traced to inattentive motorists.

Every single state in the country is now at least considering a law aimed at distracted drivers, but only one -- New York -- has gone so far as to ban the use of handheld cell phones, while driving.

Robert Darbelnet of Triple A says, "This year, some 42,000 people will perish on our highways. The bottom line is that drivers need to keep their eyes on the road and their minds on driving."

But are cellular phones getting a bad rap?

The Triple-A study found that on the road, only 30 percent used their cell phones while driving, compared to 40 percent reading or writing, 46 percent grooming, and 71 percent eating or drinking.

Another automaker has also taken aim at distracted drivers. General Motors has a program called "Senseable Driving". It also has a video that could become a staple in drivers-ed classes.

Back at Ford, an SUV has all the newest bells and whistles.

Ron Miller of the Ford Motor Co. pointing at a screen explains the car's "pre-crash system technology - being able to see things (screen changes), wireless proximity is another one...."

Plus things like the latest weather reports and a wide choice of entertainment options.

By looking at the screen, drivers can also find out the temperature and pressure of each tire, Miller notes.

All these gizmos on the dashboard may look cool, but what concerns Ford engineers is how to keep people from just staring at the dashboard rather than the road.

Miller says, "We want you to be safe and we're going to make sure we can give you all that technology, but we want to do it in the most non-disruptive manner possible."

Some states are looking at making distracted driving a mandatory part of driver's education - especially since teenagers spend the most time looking down, instead of up.
  • Tatiana Morales

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