WASHINGTON - The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration plans to expand its review of driver distractions to include Web services and other digital devices that car manufacturers intend to integrate into automobiles.
'It's definitely something that the government is very interested in,' said Tim Hurd, a NHTSA spokesman.
NHTSA is in the early stages of organizing a conference or hearing to address digital vehicular driver distractions.
In a 1997 study, NHTSA concluded that talking on a mobile phone while driving can increase the risk of a crash. A study the same year by the New England Journal of Medicine came to the same conclusion.
NHTSA intends to update the 1997 mobile phone study.
Phone bans sought
A number of states are pursuing laws restricting cell phone use in cars. No states ban cell phone use in cars, and only a few states limit their use by drivers. At the same time, many state legislatures are looking into the issue. A Baltimore delegate is pushing for a cell phone driving ban in Maryland.
Last November's death of Morgan Lee Pena, a 2-year-old girl killed in a collision caused by a man dialing his cell phone in Hilltown, Pa., has thrown the national spotlight on the issue.
It now is illegal in Hilltown for drivers to talk on their mobile phones.
In Florida last month, an Air Force security officer smashed his cruiser into a $39 million fighter jet while trying to grab his cell phone.
While some believe hands-free and voice recognition technologies can curb mobile phone distractions, studies show that is not necessarily the case. Being engrossed in a conversation on a mobile phone while driving has been identified as a significant factor in concentration loss while on the road.
'It's not just taking your eyes off the road. A big part is taking your mind off the road,' said NHTSA's Hurd.
Huge potential impact
The safety issue potentially has enormous implications for the mobile phone, Internet and auto industries.
Increasingly, car manufacturers are teaming up with mobile phone and Internet firms to build digital communications devices into vehicles.
Already, General Motors has a partnership with America Online, and Ford Motor Co. has hooked up with Yahoo!.
Wireless and Net technologies are becoming mainstays of everyday U.S life. But there is fear that if digital devices in cars become a serious safety problem, Congress could intervene.
The wireless industry would rather that not happen.
'We continue to be consistent in our educational efforts,' said Christina Martin, a spokeswoman for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.
Martin said the association promotes safe driving through advertising and other means that reach many of the 84 million U.S. mobile phone consumers.
The Associated Press contributed to this report