Summary:

With no fear of federal regulation, carmakers are pursuing their “infotainment” strategy of packing cars with the latest consumer electronics. But it’s not clear that the states — which are already fighting distracted driving by cell phone users — will go along for the ride.

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Updated. U.S. car makers, reinvigorated after their near-death experience, are adding the latest consumer electronics to their new models as a way to boost profits, a fact that the Wall Street Journal attributed to newfound confidence that the federal government will not regulate these “infotainment” incursions.

The Big Three and their overseas rivals all converged at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show and Detroit Auto Show to show off their efforts, as GigaOM reported at the time.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, which hosted a distracted driving summit in 2009 and 2010, did not hold the event last year, a sign that the issue is not a priority, which has emboldened automakers to forge ahead, according to the Journal. Update: A DOT spokeswoman said it is too early to say if the agency will host the summit, which has taken place in the fall, this year. But she said the agency remains focused on the problem of distracted driving.

This in-car infotainment deluge comes despite the fact that a driver who texts (or is otherwise distracted) is 23 times more likely to crash, according to the National Transportation Board, which posts such data to its distraction.gov website. Other distractions include reading onboard GPS systems, adjusting the radio or watching a video.

While the consumer electronics and software companies at these events were careful to stress their reliance on hands-free operation, the fact remains that the automobile is looking more and more like a home entertainment center. The Journal said the automakers have used these hands-free features to say that using in-dash systems is safer than manipulating their cell phones to make calls or text.

As Michael Sprague, the marketing director at Kia Motors’ North American division, told the Journal: 

Consumers are going to continue to drive with phones and all we can do as a manufacturer is to provide what the consumers are asking for and make it as safe as possible.

This contention between infotainment and safety will not go away anytime soon. Critics complain that what the automakers and their consumer electronics allies are doing is making it easier to drive while distracted. If the federal government won’t act, the states may. Massachusetts, for example, is getting closer to banning all use of handheld cell phones by drivers. New York is also pondering such a move. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia have already banned texting while driving. Thirty states (and Washington, D.C.) ban all cell phone use by new drivers. The Governors Highway Safety Association keeps a list of distracted driving statutes by state. And New York state is about to hold a hearing on distracted driving.

It doesn’t take a huge leap to see that as these new gizmo-packed cars hit the road, the potential for more distracted drivers will rise. Look for more scrutiny from safety advocacy groups and the states, if not the federal government, going forward.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user mroach

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