Driving While DVD’ing

CSM – New peril in driver’s seat: films on DVD

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.


Though 39 states specifically prohibit the installation of DVD entertainment systems in the front seat, 13 make accommodations for drivers’ navigation screens.


There are no statistics on drivers who have been distracted by the systems, though more than 25 percent of accidents – or 4,000 a day – are attributed to driver distraction, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHSTA). In another recent study by the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS), 19 percent of drivers said cellphones were distracting, while 47 percent recalled adjusting car controls and 29 percent noted eating or reading; 72 percent listed turning around to talk to passengers or argue with kids as distracting.


“You can outlaw movies and talking on cellphones,” says Lawlor. “Do you have to outlaw talking to passengers and disciplining kids too? Where are you going to stop?”

A reasonable question. Ultimately, the thing to regulate is reckless driving rather than specific activities undertaken while driving. I honestly can’t think of any justification for watching a DVD movie while driving a car; on the other hand, it’s unclear to me why it would necessarily be any more dangerous that watching a GPS map display, fussing over the kids, fiddling with the radio, looking for a new CD to put in, balancing a hamburger and giant softdrink, or any of the myrid other things people do while driving. Unless people are driving erratically or causing accidents, in which case they should be cited for that rather than ancillary activities, it’s unclear why yapping on a cell phone or watching a DVD should be regulated and the others not.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. carpeicthus says:

    I’ve wondered the same thing; why can’t we just make clear that certain behaviors will be noted as an instant violation of reckless driving laws, and perhaps amend those laws if they don’t quite fit, instead of creating entirely new, and possibly snowballing, legal categories?

  2. Attila Girl says:

    Unlike eating, yelling at the kids, or talking on the cell phone, reading and watching DVDs is an overt, premeditated commitment to having one’s eyes somewhere other than on the road for at least seconds at a time. It’s another order of distraction.

    I despise the laws that regulate cell phone use while driving. But those who read or watch DVDs should be cited, in my view–these are explicitly visual activities.

  3. Boyd says:

    How about the time I spent 45 minutes on a two-lane back road, commuting to work, following a gentleman who brushed his teeth the entire time?