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New peril in driver's seat: films on DVD

As GPS screens proliferate, more drivers pass the time by watching movies.

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Sitting in traffic is boring - and in the modern bustle of multitasking, time lost means myriad tasks undone. But for many drivers these days, idle driving is as passé as the Model T - and the possibilities for lost hours have gone far beyond books on tape. The latest option: watching movies.

That's what prosecutors say Erwin J. Petterson Jr. was doing when his pickup truck crossed Alaska's double yellow line and ran head-on into a Jeep, killing two people. Now he's is slated to become the first person in the US to go to trial for allegedly watching a movie - "Road Trip" - while driving. Installed in the dashboard was a DVD player with a flip-up screen. Mr. Petterson says he was listening to music.

In one sense, it's an age-old problem: Distractions have always crept up on drivers, from applying makeup and disciplining kids to consulting maps and untangling curlers from hair. But in this era of cellphones and DVDs, the car threatens to become an electronic playpen.

Of course, such devices aren't really meant for drivers. But several electronics companies are building the units, including Alpine, Kenwood, Pioneer, and Clarion, primarily as after-market substitutes for factory GPS navigation systems. More than 120,000 units were sold in 2002, and about 180,000 in 2003, costing between $2,000 and $4,000 each.

With external screens, these devices are designed to play movies and placate kids in the back seat. But since all the hardware for DVD navigation systems also works to play movies, there's wide concern that these may make cellphones look like child's play, as far as hazardous driving goes.

All the systems offer safety interlocks that prevent the dashboard screen from showing movies unless the car is in "park" or the parking brake is on. But "if you have a basic understanding of electronics," you can defeat the safety mechanism, says Todd Cliff, a car-stereo installer with 13 years' experience at Rich's Car Tunes in Waltham, Mass. Some manufacturers even offer kits to play movies on the dashboard screen, designed for installations in boats or other places where wiring to parking brakes or transmissions isn't possible.

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