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We all know that technology can be used for both good and evil: the splitting of the atom led to both nuclear power plants and nuclear bombs; GPS can be used to find lost children or by dictatorial governments to keep tabs on their citizens; RFID can be used to improve the efficiency of stocking a store’s inventory or to invade our privacy, and so forth. The Internet can be used to keep in touch with faraway family members and expand our knowledge base, or it can be used by pedophiles to prey on children. These are all well-known dangers of technology.

But what about the more hidden dangers that come with the proliferation of technological gadgets that we enjoy in today’s world? You might not see that cell phone or MP3 player in your pocket as a threat to anyone, but can it be putting you – and even others – in danger every day?

We’re not talking about the long-debated question of whether radiation from mobile phones causes brain cancer, or whether the anti-social lyrics of some popular songs are influencing young people to engage in anti-social behavior, although those are worthy topics for the medical community and psychologists/sociologists to investigate. What we’re talking about today is the possibility that our tech toys may be placing us in imminent physical danger, by distracting us from the world around us.

A few weeks ago, in this newsletter we discussed the trend toward high tech automobiles. Many cars today have built-in GPS, audio systems that are fancier than ever, DVD players built into headrests, and there are even full fledged computer consoles available that go into the dashboard, and companies are gearing up to offer mobile wi-fi connections designed to keep you on the Internet while you’re driving. All of this is very cool – but several readers wrote to bring up safety concerns about having all this entertainment equipment in vehicles.

Peter K. put it this way: “Remember now, you’re driving a 3000 pound car at 60 mph. Put another way, that’s 88 feet every second! It has been measured; taking your eyes off the road to change the radio station and back again comes to almost 3 seconds. Doing the math, that’s 264 feet. More than the length of 3 1/2 semi’s. That’s a 24 lane intersection! For the GPS navigation display, even more. Try and scroll through your cell phone’s numbers looking for a name to call. You may end up never making that call. At that speed, no seatbelt or air bag will save you.”

Of course, manufacturers of in-car DVD players market them as being for the use of the passengers – but I’ve passed vehicles on the road at night in which you could see a movie playing, and the driver was the sole occupant. In many jurisdictions, having the screen visible to the driver’s seat is against the law, but if the screen is movable, that can be difficult to enforce unless the driver is caught in the act.

And it is possible to carry the concept of having no distractions available too far. How many of us have had the experience of using the car radio or even a cell phone conversation to keep us awake and alert during a long, dull drive?

No one deals with more distractions while driving than the police themselves. Back in my law enforcement days, I found one of the most challenging aspects of the job to be routine patrol, where you’re expected to talk on the radio, look for suspicious behavior on the streets and still somehow drive safely. These days, most police cars also include mobile display terminals (MDTs), for an added distraction. Yes, in some jurisdictions, police work in pairs and the officer in the passenger seat operates the equipment, but in most smaller departments and many large, budget-challenged ones, two-officer cars is a luxury that’s unaffordable. Multitasking while driving is a way of life.

A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study a few years ago estimated that 25% of police-reported accidents involve some form of distraction. But interestingly, cell phones and other high tech devices accounted for only a small percentage of those accidents. Many of the distractions that cause accidents are very low tech: talking to passengers, tending to children, adjusting the controls (windshield wipers, lights, air conditioning, mirrors), eating, smoking, swatting insects, and so forth. Still, it makes sense that having more and more devices in the car, even those that aid in driving such as GPS units, provide more potential for distraction.

And it’s not just in the car that the distraction of tech toys can pose a danger. I see people all the time now, walking down the street, in the mall, on airplanes and in other public places, whose glazed eyes give away the fact that they’re oblivious to what’s going on around them even before you notice the tell-tale earbud. Whether listening to music, audio books or their Bluetooth phones, they obviously aren’t paying attention to anything but the “bug” in their ears. Sometimes I wonder how many folks have walked out in front of traffic because of this. And maybe it’s just my old cop training, but if a terrorist takes over my plane or someone is robbing the store, I don’t want to be the last to know.

What do you think? Is the proliferation of high tech toys making the roads and other public places more dangerous for us all? Or can we, with the proper training, learn to effectively multitask while driving without creating a safety hazard? Have you ever been guilty of making cell phone calls, watching DVDs or fiddling with the sound system while driving? Should there be laws against such activities? If so, should there also be laws against non-high-tech distractions, such as crying babies, chatty passengers and drive-through restaurants that encourage behind-the-wheel eating? Let us know your opinions and experiences.

Deb Shinder, Microsoft MVP

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