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High Tech Devices Distracting Drivers

Gone are the good old days of distracting driving, when motorists merely juggled coffee, shaved, read a map, drove with a pet in the lap and lit cigarettes. Millions of Americans are taking traditional driver absentmindedness to new heights. They`re talking on cell phones, sending and receiving pages, checking sports scores on personal digital assistants and even sneaking a glance or two at television. The blurring line between the office and the driver`s seat is raising new fears among authorities, lawmakers and insurance companies as more people are driven to distraction. Nationally, officials believe up to 30 percent of crashes are caused by driver distractions that include mobile communications devices. A March report by the National Conference of State Legislatures suggests device-related distractions that killed an estimated 600-1,000 motorists in 2001 could kill 2,000 a year by 2004. That has alarmed some California legislators, who proposed bills this year and last to follow the lead of New York state and ban California drivers from using hand -held cell phones. Both measures died after vigorous opposition from communication companies, who argued that the number of wireless phone users has jumped from 10 million in 1998 to 120 million in 2002 without a corresponding increase in car crashes.

Already, cellphones, in car electronics and radio CD systems represent the leading cause of inattention in crashes that killed 6,516 Californians and injured 413,913 last year. Those causes ran well ahead of eating, smoking, children, pets, reading and personal hygiene. Yet many, including the California Highway Patrol which last year joined 15 states that gather such statistics, believe cell phone inattention is greatly undereported because most offenders don`t admit to it.