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Mobile mapping while driving: Is it risky?

Many people have GPS-enabled smartphones with maps that update in real time. But are they dangerous behind the wheel?
Many people have GPS-enabled smartphones with maps that update in real time. But are they dangerous behind the wheel?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A Telenav survey and a National Security Council report add to research on texting at the wheel
  • Neither report addressed drivers consulting maps on their cell phones while driving
  • The temptation to glance at a map on your phone while driving can be considerable

Editor's note: Amy Gahran writes about mobile tech for CNN.com. She is a San Francisco Bay Area writer and media consultant whose blog, Contentious.com, explores how people communicate in the online age.

(CNN) -- Texting while driving is not just dumb -- it's also an equal-opportunity mistake.

According to a new survey by Telenav (a major provider of mobile GPS services), nearly 25 percent of both male and female respondents reported sending at least one text message while driving per week.

Actually, men tend to text a bit more behind the wheel than women. In all, 36 percent of men who admit to texting while driving indicated that they send an average of seven or more texts per week. Twenty-three percent of women say they text from behind the wheel as frequently.

The dangers of texting while driving were clarified in a March report from the National Safety Council, "Understanding the Distracted Brain." This report focused on how the dangers of using hands-free phones while driving are often underestimated, but it also got a lot of attention for saying that 14 percent of Americans admitted to texting while driving (a significantly lower figure than the more recent Telenav survey found).

But what about mobile maps?

Neither research effort addressed a driving hazard I've seen surprisingly often: Drivers consulting maps on their cell phones while driving.

Video: Don't text and drive, let the car do it
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Usually this isn't a matter of typing in an address and looking up directions while cruising down the highway at 70 mph. What I've seen more often is that the driver has a map pre-loaded into the phone, and occasionally picks up the phone to glance at the GPS update to see how close the next turn is.

Yes, GPS devices that speak directions aloud, or that have a screen display designed to be mounted on the dashboard for viewing while driving, have become popular. But many people (perhaps more) have GPS-enabled smartphones with map applications that update in real time. The temptation to pick up your phone and glance at a map there while driving, and maybe zoom in or out a bit, can be considerable.

I don't know whether this is any more or less dangerous than consulting a paper map or printout of directions while driving, but it does seem risky.

What do you think? Have you mobile-mapped while driving, or seen it happen? Do you think it poses a risk? And are special GPS navigation units any more or less risky?

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