DETROIT – Jeff Greenberg read something on the Internet recently that made him shudder.

As a Ford Motor Co. senior technical leader devoted to research in the area of “human machine interface,” Greenberg is acutely aware of the problem of distracted drivers in America today – and abroad.

In a “blog” entry Greenberg came across, a young British woman confessed to “terribly reckless” driving because of her infatuation with electronic devices.

“While driving, I kept playing with my iPod (MP3 player), the earphones, the songs, my hand-phone, whew! And my eyes actually left the road quite a number of times,” the woman wrote. “And the worst part was that I was actually taking pictures with my camera while driving – with people trying to cut into my lane. I could’ve hit one of them. Crazy, I tell you – crazy!”

Greenberg cites her example in a presentation at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Show here.

His session, “In-Car Gadgetry: Empowerment or Endangerment,” offers insight from auto makers, academics and consultants as to the scope of the problem of driver distraction, as well as potential solutions.

There are some 200 million cellular phone subscribers in the U.S. today, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. estimates 6% of drivers are using handheld phones at any given time, Greenberg says.

In addition, in a few short years, Apple Inc. has sold 40 million iPods, although only about 1 million of them are integrated into vehicles today, Greenberg says.

Integrating an iPod requires a port or plug, often in the glove box, allowing drivers to select songs and adjust volume with the vehicle’s audio controls. Sound is routed directly through the vehicle speakers. Integration eliminates fumbling with the iPod, lessening the risk of an accident.

Within a few years, Greenberg says 10 million iPods are expected to be integrated within vehicles, and he says that number will skyrocket to 70 million within five years. Certain Volvo vehicles are coming equipped with such ports for MP3 players, he says.

“This is where the action is,” Greenberg says. “This is the democratization of electronic features and content. People go to Wal-Mart and buy them, and they bring them into the car.”

Susan Ferguson, senior vice president-research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, calls attention to the “worrisome trend” in the aftermarket toward video screens, DVD players and even TV broadcasts for front-row occupants. NHTSA regulations prohibit such devices.

In some cases, people are removing airbag modules from their instrument panels and replacing them with TV screens. Ferguson refers to the dangerous, illegal activity as a “double whammy” that severely diminishes safety in a vehicle, while promoting recklessness.

Cell phone use by drivers is climbing. Ferguson says an IIHS study found 3% of drivers using handheld phones in 2000, a number that was up to 6% in 2005. The percentages are higher for women than for men, and young drivers are showing the biggest increase in cell phone usage.

Another IIHS study in western Australia in 2005, where cellular phone usage has been banned for drivers, found phone use associated with a fourfold increase in the risk of injury accidents, Ferguson says.

In the U.S., four states in the northeast have banned cell phone usage while driving. Many other states have banned teenage drivers and bus drivers from using cell phones, and a number of cities also have taken similar actions, including Detroit.

Whether such legislation is effective is in question. Cell phone use by drivers actually went up in Maryland and Virginia after restrictive laws were enacted, according to an IIHS study last October, Ferguson says.

Paul Green, a research professor in the area of human factors at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, has studied driver distraction most of his career and says the problem is under appreciated.

He notes correctly that the crowd at his session – about 25 people – likely was smaller than concurrent sessions being held for branding interiors and electronic architectures.

“The industry doesn’t give safety the priority it should,” Green says. “Driver distraction is a real problem.”

His office is studying how people juggle various tasks while driving. Green says his latest research will be completed within a few months.

Meanwhile, Green would love a chance to study the driving behavior of the young British woman mentioned in Greenberg’s presentation.

“I feel so ashamed of myself,” she wrote in her blog entry. “I’m so lucky I didn’t get into a car crash.”