Drivers can be distracted by car entertainment systems

Safety experts are sounding the alarm with a host of new technical gadgets from navigator to home entertainment systems finding their way into the motor car and preventing the driver from paying full attention to what is happening on the road. ( dpa )

Not so long ago, the car radio/cassette player became a standard item in most new vehicles, having made huge technical strides from the first car radio invented by American Paul Galvin in 1929.

Galvin quickly realised the potential of his gadget, combining the idea of motion and radio in naming his company Motorola.

Contemporary mobile audio components are a far cry from the car radio/cassette or eight-track players of the 1970s and 1980s. The car can literally be turned into an entertainment centre with DVD-Player or MP3 Player, LCD screens and the navigation system.

The LCD screen in the dashboard often has separate displays either folding down from the roof or the headrests for rear-seat passengers who can watch their favourite movies complete with surround sound just like at home.

Initially the navigation systems provided simple voice commands, but the latest gadgets provide almost realistic 3D images of buildings and streets ahead. But that is not all.

At the recent Hanover computer fair (CeBIT), BMW became the world's first manufacturer offering access to the internet in the car. Web content including emails are displayed on the LCD screen as part of the company's " Connected Drive" system. Data is transmitted by EDGE-Technology which is up to four times faster than the mobile standard GPRS.

Realising the possible risk to road safety, BMW however offers only limited online access. The LCD screen goes blank when the car travels above five kilometres an hour.

Safety experts point out that the driver could be dangerously distracted by all these gadgets, with a movie running, several passengers chatting on mobile phones and the navigator giving direction commands.

At the same time, the driver is confronted by a plethora of knobs, buttons and switches to operate while driving.

Germany's automobile association ADAC criticises that moving images on DVD-Players or navigation systems can be particularly distracting to the driver.

"The human being is programmed to react to moving images perceived from the corner of the eye," says Arnulf Volkmar Thiemel from the ADAC vehicle technology centre.

"Many navigation systems provide an overload of images that distract the driver," he points out. "In addition the screens are so small that details such as traffic signs cannot be seen. Navigation systems should be kept simple in giving clear voice commands".

Other safety recommendations made by the ADAC are:

- Children watching a DVD movie on the back seat should wear ear phones because sudden noises like a gunshot can dangerously distract the driver.

- Car video systems should be fitted with electronic sensors that switch the gadget off when the car is moving. Current systems can easily be manipulated, allowing live transmission of images while the car is moving.

- The volume of car entertainment systems should be kept at a tolerable level.

- Only crash-tested products should be used and installed by an expert. Systems not installed properly and with poor fastenings can cause serious injury.

- Products with simple controls are better. Navigation systems should not provide additional functions like image displays and games.

- Music downloads such as iPods and USB-sticks should not be used while driving. Sets are available that can connect them to the car radio.

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