With all the buzz about delivering mobile video to cell phones, it might be a good time to look the obvious next public menace in the eye: driving while watching TV.
Last summer Pioneer changed the design of their very popular AVIC-N1 in-dash navigation and DVD combo player, with built-in screen, to make it impossible to watch video while the car is moving. Sales of the new AVIC-N2 model plummeted, according to reports in the consumer electronics trade press.
The rationale for allowing front-seat DVD viewing on the AVIC-N1, before Pioneer made the design change, was not that drivers should watch while driving, but rather to allow the front passenger to watch a movie, as well as operate the navigation system. Pioneer was quoted as saying concern over potential legislation banning front-seat video is what prompted the change.
In the United States, many states have passed laws prohibiting handheld cell phone use while driving -- usually they allow phone use, but it must be with a speakerphone or headset.
So what's the accommodation to come, in the future, for cell phone video viewing?
Personally, I think the question really hinges on what type of program is being watched. After all, people commonly engage in all sorts of activities -- cleaning the home, cooking, homework, even writing blogs -- with the TV on. How do they do it? They "watch" programs, such as news reports and sitcoms, that don't require constant viewing. Movies and sports demand more constant visual attention, but for less exciting programs you can just glance at the screen every minute or two to put the soundtrack into a visual context, and then go about your work. You are really listening to TV more than watching it.
As they teach in driver's education, good driving is not about staring at the road ahead. Good driving requires visual scanning -- moving your eyes to look in the mirrors, periodically, and on the sides of the road. You might want to glance at the speedometer too.
So what's the big deal if you add a little TV screen to the visual scanning? What's one more thing to take a look at every few seconds?
Watching TV in the car, like listening to the radio, can be a calming influence that helps reduce road rage and aggressive driving.
Inevitably, after some highly publicized accidents involving drivers watching cell phone video, the government will step in and try to regulate or ban drivers from watching TV on their cell phones.
To prevent such drastic actions, the mobile video industry should get together and agree to a voluntary code of self-regulation.
The handset industry should agree to carry only semi-boring and boring programs -- visually speaking -- that don't require constant attention. No action movies. No sports (especially highlights). No slick commercials. No porn.
To implement this effectively, a new rating system must be devised that essentially indicates how boring -- visually speaking -- a program is.
By coincidence, video codecs work much more efficiently with this sort of visually boring programming, too. So not only does driving become safer, but also bandwidth can be used more efficiently, and picture quality is actually better.
I'd also recommend that all video-equipped cell phones to be used in cars must have at least two-minutes' worth of instant-replay memory. Drivers should never feel that they have to turn their heads to look at the screen at a particular moment -- knowing they can always rewind back is must-have safety feature.
Thus equipped, driving while watching video can be kept perfectly safe, or if not that, at least safer than driving at the legal limit for alcohol -- today's "gold standard" for allowable driving distraction.
Share your thoughts on this topic at: