It seems to be happening more often: The car next to you slowly drifts into your lane.
We’ve all noticed it; maybe we’ve even been guilty of it.
A wave of new technology is turning our cars into rolling entertainment centers, tempting drivers to take their eyes off the road while they push buttons on their dashboard or tap onscreen displays. It is one more distraction, along with texting and cellphone calls.
“It’s maddening when you see someone looking down and they’re butting into your lane,” said Amber Witte, who commutes from Palm Beach County to Plantation during the week. “Your blood pressure rises when it happens to you, but we’ve all done it.”
When motorists fiddle with their car’s gadgets, “they drive slower than normal and tap on the brakes. They’ll sometimes drift off course,” said Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Mark Wysocky.
Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit insurer-funded group, said more research should be available later this year on the impact of new technology on distracted driving, including new voice-to-text applications.
The Texas Transportation Institute released a study last week that said sending voice-activated text messages was just as distracting behind the wheel as texts sent by hand.
Federal data shows accidents associated with distracted driving lead to 10 deaths and 1,100 injuries every day.
For every mile you drive, it requires 20 separate decisions to stay on course, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. A driver traveling at 60 mph who looks away for just a second is essentially moving 88 feet with their eyes closed. If you’re playing with an app on your dash or choosing music, you could travel the length of a football field without having any idea what’s on the road ahead of you.
Careless driving, a broad category that can include distracted driving, regularly is among the top causes of fatal crashes in Broward and Palm Beach counties, according to state traffic-crash data.
The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles said 25,156 crashes were caused in 2011 because of distracted driving. Wysocky said the accuracy of those numbers is questionable because a motorist has to admit to an officer they weren’t paying attention.
To help cut down on the problem, the Florida Legislature this year is poised to ban motorists from texting while driving. A ticket could cost first-time offenders $30, plus court costs.
The bill exempts the use of phones to check maps and the use of voice-commands. Drivers would be allowed to text while stopped at a light and talking on a cellphone would not be restricted.
At the same time, the federal government is proposing automakers put stronger limits on drivers’ use of in-car touch screens. Cars would be designed to refuse to send texts, tweets or update Facebook while the vehicle is moving.
Under the proposed federal rules, drivers would still be able to pull up addresses on a GPS system. But the rules state such tasks should be accomplished by glancing from the road in two-second spans and by pushing fewer than seven buttons.
The rules would be voluntary and only apply to systems built into new cars by manufacturers. They wouldn’t apply to existing cars, mobile devices or voice-activated systems.
“As technology evolves, however, it’s clear that distractions behind the wheel don’t end with cell phones,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood wrote on his blog. “These are common sense guidelines.”
But John Saunders, who uses the display in his car to change music while driving from Broward to Miami, says the new rules would be easy to get around.
“I can see people just going to their cellphones to do the same thing if these devices are disabled in newer cars,” he said.