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CNN Today

Do Gadgets Drive Motorists to Distraction?

Aired July 14, 2000 - 2:20 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Fast-changing technology may soon keep distracted drivers safer in the fast lane.

CNN's Rick Lockridge has a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BURT KOLKER, ACKERMAN SECURITY SYSTEMS: Would you like to do that 2:30 or 3:00 today? I'm in my car...

RICK LOCKRIDGE, CNN TECHNOLOGY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Many Americans think of their cars as their mobile offices. Alarm system salesman Burt Kolker, though, is serious about it.

KOLKER: So, when people call me, they're used to getting me. And that is the nature of my business.

Hi, this is Burt. I need Yvette (ph), please.

LOCKRIDGE: A hands-free cell phone helps Kolker keep his eyes on the road. Voice-activated cell phones may one day be the only kind drivers will be permitted to use in the U.S., especially now that many cell phones come with screens designed for web access -- shopping, stock trading, e-mail -- screens that could divert your eyes from the road.

RICHARD GRANT JR., CHIEF SCIENTIST, AIRTRAC: Like, oh, let me make a reason why you're not going to be looking out the window. So with hands-free and speech, that problem is taken care of.

COMPUTER: Please choose the type restaurant you want.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ethnic.

LOCKRIDGE: Under perfect conditions, a voice-operated phone can work well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Scratch that.

LOCKRIDGE: But in the real world, cell phone connections are often noisy and garbled. That makes it harder for the remote computer Josh here is talking to, to interpret what he's saying.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, it's not going to go do it. Scratch that.

LOCKRIDGE: What's the solution? More powerful computer chips that will enable cell phones to do speech processing internally. But will smarter phones turn us into smarter drivers?

GRANT: Now, listen, improving driver safety -- this isn't a magic box that protects people when they drive. I've given them a better-than-odds-on chance. They are still going to be the same driver they were before.

LOCKRIDGE (on camera): In fact, a study in the "New England Journal of Medicine" found no safety advantage to using a hands-free cell phone behind the wheel. That same study also found that drivers using cell phones were four times as likely to cause an accident as drivers who weren't. That's almost exactly the same increase in risk as driving drunk.

Rick Lockridge, CNN, Atlanta.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: A study by AAA found a quarter of crashes each year are caused by distracted drivers. Rick Lockridge just pointed out the dangers of cell phone use. Safety experts say inserting a compact disc can make a driver six times more likely to have a wreck. And, they say, programming satellite navigation systems while driving can increase risk a whopping 30 times.

Stephanie Faul joins us from our Washington bureau to talk more about gadgets and unsafe driving. She's the communications director for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Stephanie, hello.

STEPHANIE FAUL, AAA: Hi, there.

ALLEN: Well, it sounds like we have a problem with cell phones, but is this just highlighting an overall problem of we're doing too much behind the wheel?

FAUL: Absolutely. People doing all kinds of thing besides driving. One of the sad things is that if you drive the same road every day it gets boring. And people are looking for ways to use the time and to do things that they think are more fun. But the traffic is different every day, and you have to pay full attention always when you're behind the wheel. And people seem not to do that so much.

ALLEN: Do you think drivers realize the dangers of the little things they're doing in the car? Are we -- do we have the knowledge of what -- what this potentially could do?

FAUL: I think they don't realize it. And that's because you can get away with it so many times. You know, you can look down at the CD player, you can glance out the window to read a billboard. You can do all kinds of things and it doesn't catch up with you. All it takes is that once and you then you have a problem. But in general you can get away with it 100 times, so it feels like its OK and it isn't.

ALLEN: So the news today is that one township in New Jersey is allowing only hands-free cell phones in cars. Is that something AAA supports?

FAUL: Well, in fact, we did a study, the AAA Foundation, did a study, and there have been subsequent studies that show that the distracting element is cell phone use is the conversation. So it's probable that a cell phone, a hands-free cell phone, won't be any safer than a hand-held cell phone. But, you know, one of the things we can do with jurisdictions who make these kinds of laws, if people do stop using hand-held cell phones we'll have a kind of little test, and we can see whether or not it does make a difference.

ALLEN: Is this always going to be an issue that is handled state by state?

FAUL: Absolutely. The Constitution doesn't mention motor vehicles, so all things about motor vehicles are on a state-by-state basis.

ALLEN: What do you think it could come to? Do you think we'll ever see states start outlawing cell phones? We've had some towns try and do that.

FAUL: It could happen, absolutely. But we would prefer for people to look at the whole range of driver distractions. You know, you 're going to outlaw cell phones, are you also going to outlaw cigarettes or sodas or the other things that people do behind the wheel that take their attention away from driving.

ALLEN: Or talking. It depends on the driver.

All right, thank you so much, Stephanie Faul from Triple AAA.

FAUL: Thank you.

ALLEN: If you'd like to have your say about cell phones and other distractions on the road, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has set up a forum on the Internet. There you can voice your opinion and find information about highway safety. The address is driverdistraction.org.

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