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Risk of driving while distracted Safety officials point to the danger lurking when drivers let themselves lose their focus

Inside, hot coffee awaits, the phone is ringing, the kids are singing along to a DVD in the back, and a glance at your dashboard computer tells you just how late you will be for work. Outside, eye-catching billboards beckon, drawing a lingering glance.

Drivers face an ever-increasing array of distractions as they travel, and safety officials say those distractions can translate into accidents that, in most instances, could have been prevented.

"There's only so much you can pay attention to," said Lt. Gary Schmidt, traffic supervisor for the Cheektowaga Police Department. "And if you're paying attention to three things at the same time, it's difficult."

In Erie County in 2004, almost 19 percent of the accidents for which police reports indicated a possible cause listed driver distraction as a contributing factor, according to a survey by the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Six of those crashes were fatal.

Statewide, the figure was about 18 percent, with 119 fatal crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that one in four crashes reported to police are caused by drivers who aren't paying attention.

And the local and state statistics don't include accidents in which cell phones were listed as a contributing factor.

>Cell phone problem

According to the numbers, hand-held and hands-free cell phone use combined were listed as contributing factors in less than 1 percent of crashes, both in Erie County and statewide. Some experts, though, believe the figure is suspect, because New York drivers don't want to acknowledge breaking the state's law against hand-held phone use.

Cell phones remain the biggest concern for most road safety experts. Research has shown that, hand-held or hands-free, cell phone conversations force drivers to concentrate more on what they hear and say, pulling attention away from the task of driving.

"It's not where your hands are," said John Ulczycki, director of transportation safety for the National Safety Council, "it's where your head is."

Some experts worry that the danger could increase as the generation of children that has grown up with cell phones moves onto the road. Car crashes are already the leading cause of death among American teenagers, according to traffic safety statistics.

"With the younger kids, it's more of a problem," State Trooper John Spero said. "First, they're inexperienced. Now they're text-messaging and using the cell phone. They've been on the road for maybe two years, and they don't have the experience, and they're driving too fast."

The stats on crashes blamed on inattentive driving have remained fairly constant over the past few years, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

>The gadget threat

But many experts are bracing for an increase as relatively new gadgets such as navigation systems, iPods and portable DVD players become more prevalent.

"It's the on-the-run mentality," said Nick Malamas, who conducts driver safety courses and trains other instructors for the American Automobile Association of Western and Central New York. "They're thinking about work or what they're doing next. They're not thinking about driving."

The results can be devastating.

In Colorado last November, a 17-year-old driver struck and killed a bicyclist. Police discovered he was text-messaging on his cell phone at the time of the accident.

Closer to home, officers investigating an October 2004 fatal crash in Holland believe a laptop computer was the primary reason for the head-on collision. Witnesses said the driver who was killed was weaving across the road before he crossed the center line.

"We found in his vehicle, secured in the passenger seat, a laptop computer that was on and opened to a map program," said Sgt. Thomas Daugherty of the Erie County Sheriff's Department. "We assume he was trying to get a location from where he was coming from."

Police officers say they're astounded by what they see.

"In the morning hours, we see a lot of women driving while putting eye makeup on, which boggles my mind," Daugherty said. "I stopped a young kid going to school, and he had his notebook out and was writing while he was driving."

State Trooper Art Pittman said he frequently patrols Transit Road in Amherst and watches as people read the newspaper while they drive.

"Then they come to a stop light and they're continuing to read, then the light turns and they come awake when someone behind them beeps the horn," he said. "And that starts road rage sometimes."

>Incredible incidents

Motorists say they have seen things that have left them scratching their heads, everything from pets riding on the driver's lap to seemingly vacant cars where drivers couldn't been seen because they were crouched down toward the passenger seat, where something obviously had their attention.

"Last year, I looked over into the lane next to me, and the person actually had a TV monitor on the dashboard," said West Seneca resident Ann Sievenpiper.

It's illegal to have a TV screen in a spot where an operator can see it, but police lament that, aside from that law and the ban on hand-held cell phone use by drivers, there are no other prohibitions against other potentially distracting activities.

More cars are becoming available with dashboard navigation and information systems that provide turn-by-turn directions between two points and updates on the car's performance.

By themselves, the systems provide valuable information, but they also can take the driver's attention away from the road.

Even those systems that are disabled when the car is moving or that provide verbal rather than visual clues can lead to problems, said Phil Reed, consumer advice editor for the auto Web site edmunds.com.

"You're stopped at a light and you're looking down, inputting an address, now it turns green and people are behind you are beeping at you," Reed said.

>Roadside ads

He added that manufacturers are so aware of the risk that many of the navigation systems he has seen force drivers to acknowledge they are assuming the risk of an accident every time they use the system.

Although there hasn't been much research on distractions outside the car, road safety officials are concerned that more aggressive roadside advertising is compounding the problem.

"My daily commute includes the future for most Americans," said Reed, who lives in Los Angeles.

"We have billboards that are like television sets," he said. "They basically are trying to get you to look at them and see something unique and process that and make some kind of decision about watching the show or buying the product."

Instructors say almost all crashes attributable to driver inattention could have been avoided if people focused on driving instead of grooming, making phone calls and changing their music.

"When you're in a crash, it only takes a second, maybe two if you're lucky," said Jim Yoerg, manager of driver programs for AAA of Western and Central New York. "Any time that you can gain might be able to keep you out of a crash."

email: jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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