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Mobile DVD Spins New Concerns

12 Mar, 2004 By: Holly J. Wagner

New technologies raise new public policy issues, and DVD is no different — especially as the format takes to the road.States and municipalities are increasingly looking to regulate when and what motorists can watch in their cars for two primary reasons: safety and the possibility that people in other cars will be subjected to inappropriate or offensive material.

It's no laughing matter.

Erwin “Jamie” Petterson Jr. is scheduled for trial on a second-degree murder charge next month in the case of a head-on collision in which a couple died Oct. 12, 2002. Alaska authorities contend he was watching Road Trip on an in-dash DVD system, although Petterson, who also was severely injured in the wreck, has said he wasn't.

No one has a clear sense of the scope of the in-car DVD market, partly because the groups that track sales don't distinguish entertainment from DVD navigation systems. One thing is for sure: The problem promises to accelerate as onboard players become more common.

The federal government doesn't regulate most traffic safety issues, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 25 percent to 30 percent of all police-reported crashes owe to “distracted driving,” which may include anything from talking on a cell phone to eating, personal grooming or watching DVDs. Most states' “distracted driving” laws were initiated to curb cell-phone-related problems, but are deliberately vague to accommodate new technologies.

Driving to Distraction

Billy Raven of West Babylon, N.Y., has installed 11 video screens in his BMW 325i, which he shows at custom car shows. He admits having been cited more than once for “television in view of driver.”

“Most states have some kind of law on the books. The way these laws were written, because they were generally ahead of DVD players, they address a screen that can receive a television broadcast,” said Anne McCartt, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The problem is not just domestic, either. In Australian law, as with most laws in the United States, front-compartment video screens are only supposed to operate when a vehicle's parking brake is engaged.

Nobody knows exactly how many of the players are on the road. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) measures in-car DVD system sales, but does not distinguish entertainment systems from DVD navigation systems.

CEA tracks the dollar value, but not units sold for the category: $273 million for 2000; $293 million, 2001; $429 million, 2002 and 2003. For 2004, CEA is forecasting an uptick to $500 million, according to spokesman Jeff Joseph. “My sense is, it's more entertainment- driven. We've definitely seen a trend toward re-creating your home theater system in the car,” he said.

Delphi Automotive, the largest aftermarket supplier in the auto industry and also a supplier to auto manufacturers, has sold about 1 million DVD players, primarily to automakers for factory installation. The company will launch an aftermarket line this spring.

“DVD players really took off back in 1999. Consumers want the same kind of entertainment in the vehicle that they have at home. We are aware that there are states where it is unlawful to have a DVD player in the front seats. We certainly want to make sure that people are driving safely,” said Delphi spokesman Milton Beach. “Delphi sells to automakers, who primarily install the players as rear-seat entertainment systems.”

“You could argue that if the children in the car are watching and preventing the driver from being distracted, there is a safety benefit,” said Network of Employers for Traffic Safety executive director Kathy Lusby-Treber. The CEA, which certifies technicians for their skill at aftermarket installations, pulls certification for any installer caught bypassing the safety feature that links front-screen operation to the emergency brake, Joseph said.

But that doesn't stop determined motorists from circumventing safety features. Posts on a Dodge Ram truck owners online discussion board dating back nearly a year ago include a discussion of disabling the brake-tethering feature.

“The in-dash DVD players have a wire hooked up to the e-brake (in most cases) that won't allow a DVD to play on the screen until the [emergency] brake is engaged,” states one post. “If you are putting it in yourself, this is easy to get around, but if a shop is putting it in, you will have to alter it after they are done.”

Indecent Exposure

Redefining bumper-to-bumper traffic is another issue drawing fire. Gurnee, Ill., mother Andrea Carlton's outrage at having to explain the facts of life to her 4-year-old daughter several years ahead of schedule made headlines from coast to coast last week when she and her daughter saw a fellow driver watching pornography in his car.

Andre Gainey, a Clifton Park, N.Y., resident, is scheduled to appear in court March 17 on charges of driving while watching television, public display of offensive material and driving on a suspended license.

Most often, such infractions are cited under laws against public display of obscenity. But that may change soon as well.

Flint, Mich., City Councilwoman Carolyn Sims is planning to introduce an ordinance aimed at outlawing viewing pornographic video in cars. The 23-year police veteran said she had received complaints from citizens whose children were inadvertently exposed to adult materials.

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