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Many area buyers choose options such as DVD players and navigation systems that turn their vehicles into rolling entertainment and information centers.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The entertainment options seem virtually endless whenever Ward Dawson slips behind the wheel of his Dodge Durango.

He can surf more than 150 channels of music, news, sports and talk on the XM Satellite Radio in his SUV. Or he can pop a DVD into his in-dash player and catch a movie or one of his favorite old TV shows. And when he's tooling down the highway, he likes to track his progress on his computerized navigation system.

"I've got too many toys," says Dawson, 35, a Leesburg, Va., resident who is a network manager at an architectural-engineering firm in Tysons Corner.

As motorists in Maryland and elsewhere spend more time on the road - an average of nearly an hour a day, according to one study - a growing number are rigging their minivans, SUVs, pickups and even cars with the latest in electronic technology to negotiate the crowded highways - or at least to entertain themselves while stuck in traffic.

"From iPods to movies and sound systems, they want all the things they have at home," says Paul Nadeau, who is in charge of "infotainment displays and controls" for General Motors Corp.

Though radios have been built into cars since the 1920s, the variety and sophistication of gadgetry have ballooned along with the drive time of commuters. Auto manufacturers routinely offer satellite radio, DVD players and navigation and video game systems as optional equipment, at least on their larger, more luxurious vehicles. Some offer Bluetooth hands-free mobile phone hookups, heated seats and rearview backup cameras.

"Where suburban sprawl meets urban growth," Dodge declares in its online brochure about the gadget-filled interior of its Durango. A rear-seat entertainment system plays DVDs and video games on the 7-inch screen that folds down from the ceiling.

"It avoids the boredom of driving. It used to be you drove to see the countryside; now you just see the traffic," says Jerry Tshontikidis, general sales manager for Laurel Dodge, who estimates that 15 percent to 20 percent of the minivan buyers at his dealership opt for entertainment systems.

Because they add $1,000 to $3,000 or more to the price of new vehicles, DVD players and navigation systems remain "niche components overall," says Mike Marshall, director of automotive emerging technologies for the marketing firm J.D. Power and Associates in Troy, Mich. He estimates that 2 percent to 3 percent of all new vehicles are sold with such devices installed.

Some navigation systems, in particular, are so complex that at least one auto dealer, Len Stoler Lexus in Owings Mills, offers evening "classes" - with wine, beer and snacks - for buyers who want to learn how to use the gadgets that came with their upscale vehicles.

The popularity of such gadgets is growing, industry experts say, in part because they are getting better and less expensive and people are becoming more comfortable with technology and spending more time on the road. The average driver spends 55 minutes a day behind the wheel, according to a 2003 national survey.

Many vehicle buyers also find they can get the same or better gadgets for less at local electronics stores, then pay to have the devices installed or do it themselves.

That's what Chuck Bowie of Germantown did, plunking down $800 for a Garmin StreetPilot navigation system that he can mount on the dash of either of his Hondas, the Accord or the CRV.

"I was tired of going out and getting lost in the suburbs," Bowie said.

Though he doesn't need it on his 45-minute commute to Arlington, Va., the 55-year-old federal worker says he likes the way the 3-by-5-inch device can show him the way home from wherever he is in the area. He can glance at its screen to tell what intersections are coming up, or it can be programmed to give him verbal guidance - even alerting him that he has missed a turn.

One of the most popular and fastest-growing automotive gadgets is satellite radio. At prices that start at $100 for a radio that plugs into a vehicle's cigarette lighter, satellite radio offers dozens of channels of commercial-free music, sports, news and talk on signals that won't fade out no matter how far you drive.

XM, the larger of the two satellite services, has signed up more than 4 million subscribers. Competitor Sirius boasts well over 1 million and sales deals with makers of more than 80 lines of cars and trucks.

In a marketing pitch sure to appeal to road warriors, both satellite radio companies boast of their coast-to-coast signals, and each has multiple channels devoted to traffic and weather conditions in selected areas, including Baltimore.

Each service costs $12.95 a month, a price many consumers are willing to pay to increase their listening enjoyment while wading through traffic.

Jason Herring, 27, took the plunge into satellite radio 3 1/2 years ago, signing up with XM shortly after it made its debut. He explained that he'd tired of listening to commercials and "gabbing" on FM radio while he made his 45-minute commute between Perry Hall and Owings Mills, where he works in tech support for Legg Mason.

Herring says he enjoys satellite radio so much that he finds himself channel-surfing in the car even more than he did when he searched in vain for enjoyable music on commercial radio.

"There's that, 'Am I missing something better somewhere else?'" he says. "There's a lot more channels to go through."

His extra radio fiddling hasn't resulted in any mishaps on the road, Herring says, but some worry that highway safety could suffer from the proliferation of automotive gadgetry.

"There's probably a good argument for having some entertainment systems in the back," said Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, because children so occupied would demand less attention from driving parents. But, Tyson said, "we do have some reason for concern about what's happening up front."

Studies have found that using cell phones while driving contributes to crashes, prompting a number of states to ban their use while driving or to require hands-free phone devices.

That has helped fuel installation of Bluetooth wireless communication systems in vehicles, but a study by the traffic safety agency this month found that driver attentiveness suffers even with hands-free phones.

No similar studies have addressed the effect on driving performance of using in-dash electronics. Automakers fix up-front DVD players so they won't operate while a vehicle is moving, and navigation systems warn against trying to plot a course while in motion. But some devices - especially those installed after the vehicle leaves the factory - can be operated while rolling.

"Studies show drivers are easily distracted, and you're not as good a driver when you're distracted for any reason," said Anne McCartt, vice president of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, based in Virginia.

The distraction doesn't have to be in the driver's vehicle. Several states have cracked down after parents complained of seeing pornographic movies playing on the DVD screens of passing SUVs and vans.

Ward Dawson says some of the gadgets on his Durango enhance safety. The backup camera, which displays the area behind a vehicle on the in-dash screen, doubled as his rearview mirror on a recent Christmas trip to Detroit, he recalls, when the truck's cargo area was piled high with presents.

Dawson says he doesn't channel-surf that much on his radio. He loves one station, named "Lucy," so much that he takes long drives just to listen to its alternative-hits fare. And, although his DVD player will operate while his SUV is rolling, Dawson says he steers clear of taking that risk.

"I don't ever watch a video while I'm driving," he says. "I'd kill myself."

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