On October 12, 2002, a pickup crossed the double-yellow line of a road outside Anchorage, AK, and collided with a Jeep Grand Cherokee, killing both the Jeep's occupants. The pickup driver allegedly was watching a dashboard-mounted DVD player when the crash occurred. In what is believed to be the first prosecution of its kind in the U.S., the driver is being charged with second-degree murder.

Alaska law doesn't specifically prohibit DVD players in view of a driver, but the prosecutor in the case says the facts warranted the murder charge on the basis the driver knew his conduct (installing the player so he could view it while driving) was substantially certain to cause death.

The driver denies he was watching a movie while operating his pickup and says he was listening to music, but as the trial got underway in late July, the once-arcane subject of driver distraction has become a topic of national debate.

Proponents of mobile electronics and telematics frequently argue such technology isn't any more distracting than radios when they first were installed in cars and trucks.

Nevertheless, a growing number of studies show that even drivers using hands-free telephones are far less alert and slower to react to emergencies than drivers who aren't multi-tasking.

But are telematics-infatuated drivers any more dangerous than those shaving, putting on makeup or disciplining their children as they drive?

And even while safety advocates wring their hands over the perceived threat of electronic distraction, the auto, telecommunications and consumer electronics industries every month introduce more interesting gadgets. They're supposed to make our lives easier, but do they have the potential to do more harm than good?

And if governments do clamp down on the use of in-vehicle entertainment and communications systems, what happens to the burgeoning telematics industry and all the future profits that are supposed to fill corporate coffers at OEMs and suppliers?

A panel of experts headed by Jeffrey Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., will tackle the driver distraction controversy 1 p.m. Oct. 20 at the upcoming Convergence 2004 confab at Detroit's Cobo Center.

“As more governments enact legislation concerning mobile communication devices and potential driver distraction, the debate over how much and what type of electronics should be installed in vehicles will become even more heated,” says Gerhard Schmidt, chairman of Convergence 2004 and vice president-Research and Advanced Engineering, Ford Motor Co.

“We expect this panel to be a lively and serious examination of how to balance safety with consumer demand for electronic devices inside the car,” says Schmidt.

Participating in the panel will be:

  • Mitsuhiko Masegi, managing officer-Safety & Chassis Systems Product Div., Denso Corp.
  • Tom MacTavish, vice president and director, Human Interface Lab, Motorola Automotive.
  • Jeff Greenberg, Ford manager-VIRTTEX Driving Simulator.
  • John McElroy, executive producer-Blue Sky Productions.
  • Sue Cischke, Ford vice president-Environmental and Safety Engineering.

On the same day, the concept of active safety will be explored with sessions addressing accident-avoidance issues and hardware and software technology.

Conference details and registration information are available online at: www.convergence2004.org.