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The automobile has come a long way — literally and figuratively — since the skinny-tires-in-ruts, chug-a-lug days.

Even the most basic of vehicles today are a veritable rolling tribute to technology, filled with computers, sensors and assorted electronic gizmos and doodads.

The modern automobile can also be a hair-pulling puzzle for the average American over the age of say, 40. Anyone that age or younger has mastered technology to such an extent that it can be manipulated by a pair of flying thumbs or voice commands.

The dashboards of new cars are especially interesting, and for many, entertaining. And therein lies a growing problem. All the screens and gadgets on a new-car dash can draw a person’s attention away from the driver’s primary purpose, which is to drive, providing safe, convenient transportation from one location to another.

The on-board gear can be a serious road hazard, both for user/drivers and anyone who happens to get in the way of their vehicle. According to the American Automobile Association, in-car cell calls are actually decreasing, as more jurisdictions create rules against calling and/or texting while driving. The reason for tougher rules is that, statistically, there is little difference between calling/texting, and driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

That calls decline is the good news. The less-than-good-news is that while phone calls are down, distractions due to drivers fiddling with their phones to manipulate the car’s tech gizmos is up, dramatically, 57 percent higher last year than in 2014, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The bottom line is that more people are putting themselves, their passengers and other motorists, pedestrians and cyclists at risk of dying in a crash.

The institute’s data suggests that more than 800 people died in car crashes in 2017 due to drivers using their phones to do something other than making a call.

This all circles back to distracted driving, which was a problem long before computers came into existence. Tech gear gets much of the blame these days because of its prevalence, but the simple fact is that distractions come in all shapes and sizes.

For example, let’s say you’re motoring along on Highway 101 on a shopping trip, enjoying the right-side view of the Pacific, when a pod of orcas appears and you crane your neck to see. Next thing you know you’re veering to the right and tumbling down a cliff to the beach.

Or maybe you’re tooling up the highway to see Aunt Millie in San Luis Obispo, and baby Huey starts wailing from his car seat. You turn to see what the problem is, and hit the bridge abutment at the Santa Maria River.

These may seem extreme cases, but they’re fairly common, and often fatal.

Driving distractions happen all the time, but it is our responsibility as drivers to put them aside to focus on what’s really important, which is keeping your vehicle where it should be on the street or road.

Experts say that these days about one in every four drivers is, at any given time, doing something other than focusing on driving. That data includes using and/or manipulating the phone, eating, smoking or trying to find a decent oldies station on the car radio.

We have an abundance of narrow streets in our communities, which means anything less than total concentration while driving can be fatal, in an instant. Something to think about as you go about your business.

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