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Starts & Stops

Study points to hazard of driver iPods

Jennifer Cole, with daughter Hollis, 2, at Downtown Crossing station yesterday, says she is glad she no longer owns a car. Jennifer Cole, with daughter Hollis, 2, at Downtown Crossing station yesterday, says she is glad she no longer owns a car. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Noah Bierman
October 5, 2008
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Researchers have told us how dangerous it is to text message and fiddle with GPS devices while driving, but have you heard about the hazards of iPods? Yes, not everyone likes those brilliant devices from Apple that fit so neatly on our dashboards or in our cup-holders.

"This is just a disaster," said Donald L. Fisher, an engineer who runs the Human Performance Lab at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Fisher is preparing to publish a pair of studies on driver distraction, both of which will give further pause to drivers who are pausing too often from their driving responsibilities as they play with car gadgets.

On average, almost every driver who used an iPod while driving on a simulator turned away from the road for a full two seconds at least once. Two seconds is the magic number for researchers, because if you look away that long, you increase your crash risk by a factor of three.

For the study, Fisher used drivers who consider themselves familiar with iPods and presumably know how to navigate pretty quickly to find their favorite songs. The study found that drivers who use voice-activated systems were half as likely to turn away from the road for a dangerous period of time.

"It just seems unacceptable to me, yet they're selling these holders for the iPod," he said. "Nobody's talking about this. People are at least talking about texting while driving."

Of course, it doesn't have to be this dangerous if you preset your song lineup and forget about it. And if you happen to have a friend in the car, you can ask them to pick a playlist - as long as you trust their taste.

Fisher's second new study tests the focus of novice drivers, between the ages of 16 and 18.

Surprise! They're a lot more likely (55 percent of those tested) to keep their eyes off the road for a dangerous period of time if you ask them to check a map, change a CD, or dial a cellphone. More experienced drivers are less likely to lose focus on the road while performing these tasks (22 percent of them).

Night roadwork maze
In last week's Globe, I wrote about the traffic hassles caused by an increase in daytime construction projects. But drivers who work the nightshift still get the worst of it, even if there are fewer of them.

Take Jennifer Eaton, a nurse at Brigham and Women's Hospital, who tried to get to her home in Marblehead last week after the 3-to-11 p.m. shift.

It was an obstacle course, she said, with three different transportation agencies closing either all or part of major roads: the Tobin Bridge, Storrow Drive, and the Ted Williams Tunnel.

Like a fugitive in a darkly lit escape movie, Eaton found herself boxed in the city, seeking safe passage. Some roads were not entirely closed, just backed up, like the Tobin, which was down to a single lane on the northbound span a couple of nights last week.

"At midnight I'm too tired to sit in traffic," she said.

So she sought out her own detours, only to find closed ramps or unexpected backups. She called the SmartRoute 511 traffic monitoring service, but even the traffic watchers there could not help her find a guaranteed clear path home.

She made it, eventually, after about an hour and 10 minutes, a half hour later than usual.

Jeff Larson, general manager of SmartRoute, said Eaton's route was particularly tough, given the specific set of road closures. "Better that it happens at night when there's much less traffic," he said.

Wendy Fox, spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said construction planners try to make sure they are not closing connected roads in ways that cause cascading inconveniences for drivers. Her agency oversees Storrow Drive.

Fox said she is sorry Eaton got stuck, but "these three projects are separate enough that it didn't seem to be a problem for any of them."

Carless and loving it
A few weeks ago, I asked readers for an accounting of how much money they could save each year by giving up their cars.

Jennifer Cole, a Northeastern University professor from Charlestown, offered two measures - about $20,000 a year in cash and a new love of Boston.

She gave up her Volkswagen Jetta station wagon the hard way, after being broadsided by a bright yellow Hummer the day before Easter. A case of Chianti was smashed. Her dog, Casey, spent three days in intensive care.

The car took two months to repair. In that time, her emotion shifted from fear of immobility to depression over the prospect of driving again. She began losing weight after 5-mile jogs to work. She stopped paying and stressing over the "infernal toxic-orange" parking tickets that were regularly mounted on her windshield. She discovered the city instead of the mall. She visited her parents using commuter train instead of the Massachusetts Turnpike.

"I am also an environmental science professor, and I stopped feeling like a hypocrite by telling students to take public transportation, then getting into my car to drive on perfectly T-accessible routes," she wrote.

After two months of this, she was hooked to the point of near nuttiness. She began talking to complete strangers on the Orange Line. They would actually help her carry her baby stroller when elevators broke down.

"I sometimes walk home through the Common and the Public Garden, stopping with my daughter at the 'Make Way for Ducklings' statue," she added.

Cole unloaded her car on Craigslist as fast as she could. Even though she took a loss on the sale, she figures she is financially - and mentally - doing better.

Please send complaints, comments, or story ideas to starts@globe.com The column and a listing of major road closures and other transportation advisories can be found at www.boston.com/starts.

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