Windshield Phone Display a New Source of Distracted Driving?

by | Dec 10, 2013 | Car Accident

A new device that displays smartphone menus on a car’s windshield is getting attention in the tech world, although it is not clear that the driving public will get behind the product.

Called HeadsUP, the device projects texts and navigation from a phone onto the windshield. HeadsUP responds to verbal commands and has sensors that pick up gestures so the driver can use a phone while looking straight ahead. But some fear it will add to the distracted driving epidemic.

It is also not clear whether the technology would be legal in states that have strict anti-distracted driving laws. In California, for instance, drivers can be ticketed for using Google Glass, which employs similar technology to project Web search and other data on the inside of eyeglasses.

Smartphone use by drivers is a significant safety concern. In 2011, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended a nationwide ban on the use of personal electronic devices while driving. The agency concluded that drivers who use cellphones to talk, email, text or surf the Web are very likely to become distracted and cause auto wrecks.

A study released in 2011 by the Governors Highway Safety Association estimated that distracted driving causes up to 25% of all U.S. vehicle crashes.

In response to rising auto accidents related to distracted driving, many states have adopted laws that limit or prohibit the use of mobile electronic devices behind the wheel. In 2012, fatalities related to distracted driving fell slightly, but the number of people injured in distracted driving accidents rose 9%.

Safety of Hands-Free Devices in Question

Auto makers are introducing a host of hands-free smartphone apps and onboard electronic systems that make it possible to use email, make phone calls, text, and surf the Web while driving.

There is significant debate about whether hands-free mobile technology is any safer than handheld devices. A recent AAA study found that making a phone call on Bluetooth was just as distracting as talking on a handheld cellphone. Also, voice-activated programs like voice-to-text email dictation were actually more distracting than either a Bluetooth or a handheld phone. This study turned some conventional distracted driving wisdom on its head, casting doubt on whether products like HeadsUP are truly safe for consumers.

The issue is one of cognitive distraction. The human brain cannot truly multitask —instead, a person’s attention switches back and forth between different tasks, even if these activities are simple. National Safety Council Senior Director David Teater put it this way: “For some reason, when we’re talking on a phone, that’s the primary task and driving becomes the secondary task … That may not matter the 99% of the time when driving is boring and you can largely do it without thinking, like you walk without consciously thinking about it — but what about that 1% of the time when your full attention will mean the difference between life and death?”

The $300 price tag on HeadsUP may keep many consumers from trying it. One of its selling points is that the user can simply plug in the phone and get access to all messages and contacts. However, whether or not it becomes popular will likely depend on how safe—and street legal—the device will be.