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EDITORIAL: Make cool car gizmos safe

With goodies like Web browsers, 3D maps and multiple dashboard video screens on the horizon, the cars we drive are poised to become rolling digital playgrounds.

That's the word from the Consumer Electronics Show, the annual "gee-whiz" extravaganza in Las Vegas where tech companies displayed their latest products last weekend. The gadgets are irresistible for one simple reason: They're cool.

But sure to rise, along with the number of gadgets, is the danger of distraction. Automakers, lawmakers and consumers should take care that safety isn't left sucking fumes. Nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving distracted or inattentive drivers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says. The body count could soar along with the gizmo count, but it doesn't have to. As tech companies tap the lucrative auto market, technology could also make driving safer.

Automakers say they will make some things, like Web browsers, usable only when a car is stationary. Voice actuated technology should help to keep drivers' eyes on the road. And technology already in many vehicles, like antiskid systems and cruise control that automatically maintains a safe distance from objects ahead, demonstrate the potential for nanny-tech safety enhancements.

And here's a quaint notion: Motorists could occasionally just turn off and tune out the tech. Open a window. Enjoy the scenery. Talk to passengers. It could catch on. hN