RealTime IT News

CA Drivers: Eyes Off That Laptop

The California State Assembly passed an amendment to its vehicle code, which went into effect Thursday, making it illegal to run most video displays in the front seats of automobiles. The bill is an elaboration of a standing law forbidding television displays, and extends to include devices like laptops, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and video games.

Assembly Bill 301 (AB 301), however, does allow for visual human aid tools that help the driver, such as global positioning systems , mapping displays, vehicle information displays, or TV mirrors (to assist larger vehicles in backing up and making turns). The law also does not apply to authorized emergency vehicles or police cars.

There are a growing number of video consoles making their way into the front seats of vehicles today, and it's not just in the decked out SUVs or luxury cars of the rich and famous. Automobile manufacturers are putting DVD and VHS players in many of today's family mini-vans, pitching it as the perfect way to keep children quiet during those long family trips. With the pervasiveness of public digital assistants (PDAs) and laptop computers, commuters are plugging into the Internet and catching up on work while on the road.

The amended law was welcomed by the state's law enforcement agencies, which see an increasing number of video screens in the front seats of today's automobiles.

"First of all, we at the California Highway Patrol like any bill that discourages distracted driving," said Tom Marshall, a spokesperson at the California Highway Patrol. "The video screens present a real danger now that they are in wider use."

The rule makes clear installed video devices are not banned from vehicles outright, but front-seat video devices must be wired so they are disabled whenever the vehicle is not in "Park." If a passenger is operating a laptop or other video device, it must be out of the line of sight of the driver. Violators are subject to a fine, though the bill didn't go into amounts for first and subsequent tickets. Marshall said local courts establish fines.

The clarification to the standing vehicle code is one way legislators are taking to define the use (and abuse) of technology on the road. Though many video devices, such as GPS units and heads-up displays (HUDs), aid U.S. travelers, a growing number are keeping their eyes off the most important part, the road.

While the number of vehicle accidents caused by distracted aren't necessarily quantified, there is the precedent of another distracting technology for safety officials to fall back on: cell phones.

A 2002 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that roughly 31 percent of drivers use a cell phone for incoming or outbound phone calls. In a survey with people involved in a vehicle accident, the report found that 292,000 people attributed being distracted by a cell phone as a reason for the crash.

The same report also took new technology into consideration. When asked what behaviors were most distracting for drivers, 63 percent said accessing the Internet to read emails or Web surfing was the most dangerous, while 55 percent said looking at a map or directions was equally dangerous.

Marshall said even though GPS devices and other mapping aids are not prohibited while driving, they are still a distraction.

"We recommend that people pull over, out of traffic, to read them as well," Marshall said.