One of traffic's most infuriating new annoyances is the solo driver absorbed in conversation; cell phone pressed to the ear with one hand, the other hand wildly gesturing to make a point, the car veering from lane to lane, speeding and slowing in time with the emotional rhythms of the discussion.
In addition to annoying, gabby drivers may be hazardous. The evidence is still sketchy but a 1997 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that a driver on a cell phone is four times as likely to get into an accident as one who isn't, a rate that would be comparable to the dangers of driving at the blood alcohol limit.
All this has prompted the Highway Traffic Safety Administration to take a look this week at whether federal legislation or regulation is needed to diminish the distraction of cell phones and other gimmickry crowding into our vehicles - dashboard computers, navigation devices, TVs and VCRs, CD players. A new federal study indicates that navigation devices are vastly more distracting than cell phones.
Distractions of any kind are dangerous. One organization estimates the number of accidents due to distractions at 4,000 to 8,000 daily. But distractions are not all high-tech. Drivers eat, apply makeup, fiddle with the radio and yell at kids in the back seat.
Precisely what kind of federal regulation or legislation would help is unclear. There have been sporadic local attempts to ban cell phone use, but once again regulation is lagging behind the curve. By one measure, 44 percent of drivers have cell phones and that percentage will only grow.
With the drawbacks of new technology have come real benefits. Lives and property have been saved by the prompt reporting of accidents and crimes by cell phone. And frazzled parents find a VCR in the back of the family minivan an antidote to squabbling on long drives and an end to the incessant question, ''Are we there yet?''
As with any new technology, there is a certain teething period while motorists adapt the new gadgets into the driving routine and manufacturers make the gadgets more adaptable - hands-free phones, for example. Car radios were once considered a dangerous distraction; now it's almost impossible to buy a car without one.
There is always the tendency to posit a golden age, a time when drivers did pay attention. Maybe there was but that was because drivers had to wrestle with stick shifts, no power steering or brakes and poor handling. No one wants to return to those days, which, in any case, were statistically far more dangerous to motorists than our own. Driving is, in fact, getting safer and safer.
The solution to turning dangerous distractions into harmless diversions lies in a combination of engineering and common sense. The engineering part shouldn't be hard.