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At Las Vegas electronics show, the Web and cars meet

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010; A06

LAS VEGAS -- What happens in Vegas could soon hit the open road.

Even as policymakers and safety advocates worry that the use of gizmos in cars is driving people to distraction, companies including Ford Motor showcased dashboard innovations at the Consumer Electronics Show. The topic was so prominent, in fact, that hundreds of booths dedicated to computers and cars gave the industry event a Detroit Auto Show feeling.

Ford, for example, has a lineup of cars decked out with Internet dashboards that allow people to use Twitter and Facebook and stream Internet radio from behind the wheel. Alan Mulally, Ford's chief executive, described the firm's "in-car connectivity strategy" as core to its corporate turnaround.

"These are the features that set us apart," Mulally said in his keynote speech.

Demand for such innovation is growing, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, which reports the tally for "sales of in-vehicle gadgets are expected to top $9.3 billion for 2009."

But as the use of technology accelerates, policymakers are proceeding with caution. Distracted driving is deadly, they say.

In 2008, nearly 6,000 highway deaths were caused by distracted driving -- with many of those distractions caused by cellphone use. On any given day, 800,000 drivers use cellphones on the road, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. According to a Pew report, one of three teens admit to texting while driving.

Trade show vendors showcased safety innovations, too. Among the wares from start-ups were software and gadgets aimed at shutting down cellphone use or making communications safer on the road. Global Traffic Network sends traffic warnings about accidents by cellphone ringtones. ZoomSafer's software locks down phone calls and texting when a car hits 15 mph.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski was among policymakers at the show who stressed Washington's role in addressing technology issues -- in particular, distracted driving.

Transportation Secretary Raymond H. LaHood has called texting while driving an "epidemic," and said he puts his BlackBerry in the glove compartment to ensure he won't use it.

FCC member Meredith Attwell Baker has said she puts her two smartphones in her purse and then stows it in the trunk.

"I just don't want to be tempted," she said in an interview last month.

Some officials have acknowledged it might be unrealistic to expect drivers to put their gadgets away.

During a CES panel Friday, Peter Appel, the Transportation Department's head of research and technology, said his agency is looking into ways technologies can make driving safer. Location-based applications could make the driver's seat rumble to warn of an accident ahead. Also, software firms such as Safe Driving Systems and Txtblocker showed off technologies that would block text messaging and inbound calls while on the road.

Creating new technologies and making the roads safer "can be very complementary objectives," Appel said. But ultimately, he said, "the responsibility of the driver is more important than any action."

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