Automakers and high-tech companies have found a new place to put sophisticated internet-connected computers — the front seat of the car even as safety advocates continue to rail against unnecessary distraction.

At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, tech giants Intel and Google announced that they would be working with car manufacturers to introduce built-in screens above the gearshift to show high-definition videos, 3D maps and web pages.

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A California driver uses his so-called smart phone while on the highway in December 2009. Using a hand-held device is illegal in the state and has resulted in over 163,000 tickets since mid-2008. (Reuters)

"Odds are that you're using Pandora, Stitcher and Twitter," said Julius Marchwicki, product manager of mobile application connectivity at Ford Motor Company, explaining the company's new Sync system.

"Now, you can keep listening to your favourite personalized content when you get into the car, all using the connectivity of the safe, hands-free, voice-controlled Sync."

Part of the new infotainment system, as the tech and car industries call it, devices such as Sync will hit the market this year and are expected to be standard equipment for a wide range of cars in the near future.

The system has Wi-Fi capability, two USB ports and a place to plug in a keyboard — in short, many of the features of a standard PC.

Hands on the wheel

The automakers' efforts are being pushed by companies that make chips for PCs and that want to see their processors slotted into the 70 million cars sold worldwide each year.

But as Transport Canada recommends, "Drivers avoid using any device that may take their attention away from the road."

The department has been encouraging manufacturers to design devices that are compatible with safe driving and is also working with the provinces and territories to try to reduce driver distraction from in-vehicle communication and information technologies.

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The new Ford Sync, as shown at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, has Wi-Fi capability and dashboard plugs for all your entertainment needs. (Courtesy Ford)

Ford maintains that Sync's voice-command feature will let drivers keep their eyes on the road instead of fumbling with their phones.

In fact, some safeguards have been built in, such as disabling the car's Wi-Fi connection once the vehicle is shifted out of park, so as to discourage web surfing while driving.

Ford also said that only applications that would not endanger drivers will be allowed, which should eliminate the possibility of gaming while driving.

However, experts such as Dr. Alison Smiley, president of Human Factors North Inc., refute the claim that hands-free devices are safer.

Finger-scribble

Smiley says car manufacturers have not done the right research and are overlooking the main issue, which is what a driver is thinking about when behind the wheel.

"I've seen claims and ads that this (hands-free devices) is the safer way to drive but there is no basis for it," she says. These manufacturers are simply "not in the business of doing research."

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Dr. Alison Smiley, president of Human Factor North. (Courtesy Alison Smiley)

Another system on the way this fall from Audi lets drivers pull up information on their screen as they drive.

This system would allow drivers to finger-scribble a location on the touch pad and get a Wikipedia entry on the topic with photos and animations of ways to get there.

The technology and car companies say that safety remains a priority. A notice that pops up when the Audi system is turned on reads: "Please only use the online services when traffic conditions allow you to do so safely."

But Charlie Klauer, a researcher at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute says drivers need to be careful. And they should not be fooled by a false sense of security just because the technology only needs them to look at the display once or a few times quickly.

"Anything that takes a drivers eyes away from the roadways is dangerous," Klauer says, and the more a driver looks away, the risk level of a crash goes up exponentially.

Hands-free still a danger

Driving distractions can be defined by both physical and cognitive challenges.

For example, Smiley explains that looking away from the road for more than two seconds — the time it takes to change a radio station or send a text message — doubles the risk of a crash.

Research has proven that distractions are equally prevalent whether the distraction is physical or mental.

Two studies, one conducted in Toronto and one in Australia, discovered that the use of either hand-held or hands-free cellphones increases the chances of an accident four times because the issue, "is more that your mind is not on the road rather than where your eyes are looking," Smiley said.

"We're kind of single-channel processors of information," she says. Humans "do best paying attention to one thing at a time."

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A semi-transparent AMOLED screen is displayed during a media preview event at the 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada. One of its suggested applications is for car windshields. (Reuters)

The view that distractions are dangerous is echoed by CARSTAR Collision, one of Canada's largest automotive repair franchises, which recently introduced a new ad campaign focused on informing drivers about distractions.

Distractions are "for sure one of the leading causes of accidents," says Lisa Merchanti-Ladd, CARSTAR's senior director of marketing.

She is surprised that new devices are being introduced for cars. "Being in the business for 15 years, everybody's got their story about something that distracted them."

Getting worse

According to Transport Canada, in 2006 there were 2,604 fatalities and 144,756 personal injuries due to car collisions.

The U.S. saw numbers that were proportionately a little higher. 

Distraction was reported for 16 per cent (5,870) of the overall fatalities in the U.S. and an estimated 515,000 people were injured in police-reported crashes where driver distraction was among the causes, a number that appears to be rising.

While these numbers are significant, they may not indicate the true size of the problem because it is difficult to define what distraction is.

Klauer, for one, estimates that depending on the type of crash 20 to 30 per cent are the result of the driver engaging in some kind of secondary task. 

Even as more provinces make it illegal to use hand-held devices while driving, Smiley thinks, "the whole distraction issue is getting worse and worse over time."

She wants people to understand there is no difference between the use of hand-held and hands-free devices.

"Unfortunately driving is not yet automated, it's still the driver who has control of direction and speed of a vehicle," she says.