By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
Now that in-dash DVD players with built-in screens are more widely available, the issue of installing them legally is fast becoming a red-hot topic.
The laws in 39 states place some type of restriction on watching TV while driving. In response, suppliers have instituted safeguards that generally prevent a video display from activating unless the car's parking brake is engaged. But dealers are finding that many customers are asking or demanding that they be told how to circumvent the safeguards.
Several dealers said they have been placed in an uncomfortable legal, financial and moral position with regard to front-seat car video.
"Every month, we lose sales. We have lost thousands of dollars in sales over the issue. Customers come in and say [if we don't override the manufacturer's safeguard], 'we'll just go to your competitor,' " said Joe Cavanaugh, owner of Stereo West, Omaha, Neb., noting that in some cases consumers opt to simply install the product themselves. Consumers can override the parking brake safety feature on some systems by grounding a single wire, said retailers.
"Everyone is asking how to get around it," noted Mark Gebeloff, owner of Action Electronics, Newington, Conn.
Speaking candidly, one retailer claimed, "People aren't going to spend that much money only to have it work when the parking brake is on. If they can't watch TV while the car is running, they won't buy it. Whatever dealers are telling you, in my market, everyone grounds the parking brake wire." He claimed he would lose half his car video business if he obeyed the safety laws.
Suppliers also admit that pressure on the sales floor is a concern. "It's becoming a big problem. Retailers are hesitant to say 'no' in the selling process; so many of them are caving in to make the sale," said Alpine VP of marketing Stephen Witt. "If manufacturers and retailers do not work in tandem, the issue could escalate to legislation and legal activity that could seriously damage the future of mobile electronics."
Several members of the Mobile Electronics Retailers Association (MERA), however, said they were vehemently opposed to any retail practice that circumvents the law and pointed out that dealers are foolish to open themselves up to legal liability. Many were clearly angry at fellow retailers who ignored safeguards and said that to do so was tantamount to murder. "I know there are a lot of guys out there who will install video improperly, but there are certain times that you have to put safety and conscientiousness, as well as community responsibility, ahead of sales," said Michael Cofield, president of Custom Sounds, Austin, Texas.
"We are also dead against this," said Cavanaugh. "We feel the liability implications are potentially so huge that we will not even consider it. Some customers demand [overriding safety features], but we encourage them to think about it. The idea of someone watching TV while driving is unthinkable. I know several reps who had systems installed in their vehicles and they were pulled over and ticketed for driving erratically because they were taking peeks at their TV," he said.
Cavanaugh and other retailers indicated the problem may be widespread. "We were told by the customers that they can walk into our competitors and they'll do it. I don't know how true it is, but we hear it very frequently." He added that consumers are opening themselves up to legal problems, as well. "We also ask people, 'Do you think that a police cruiser won't see it?' So they are putting themselves at tremendous risk."
Custom Sounds has informed its sales staff that they will be fired immediately if they ask an installer to override safeguards, and likewise, an installer will be fired for improperly installing front-screen DVD.
"While we don't normally have corporate policies which are so unbending, we feel this situation calls for us to be exceptionally firm," he explained. The store also posts a mobile video disclaimer and requires all customers to sign a form stating that if their mobile video screen, for some reason, should become viewable while driving, then the consumer agrees to bring back the vehicle for repair to the screen.
Witt said that Alpine now includes a clause in its dealer agreements stating that dealers must comply with mobile video safety precautions. When asked what would happen if a dealer didn't comply, Witt said, "We could be forced to cut the dealer off."
Kenwood's position is similar, according to Sally House, marketing communications manager.
"Our dealer agreement, in critically strict language about mobile video products, includes total restrictions on defeating any circuitry and it prohibits dealers from telling consumers how to defeat our safety circuits. And we make it very clear we would immediately terminate any dealers we find in violation of this provision," she said. "We totally believe that a dealer would be foolish to expose themselves to the potential liability associated with installing any video system in an unsafe manner and this activity is not in the best interest of the industry or consumers."
All suppliers and retailers contacted by TWICE said they had heard of no accidents due to watching TV in the car, as of yet. A spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) confirmed: "No incidents have been brought to our attention."
CEA says the issue of driver distraction "has risen to a top priority of CEA's mobile division in partnership with CEA's government and legal affairs division.
"We continue to monitor federal and state policy making in this area. We're looking at the issue from a standards aspect and have an active standards effort going, and we're considering where we might be able to lend support to research efforts going on out there," a spokesman said.
CEA's position on mobile video, broadly stated, is that any screen in the front seat that is visible to the driver should not be used for entertainment video while the car is in motion. They should only be used as an aid to driving, as in navigation, rear view monitors or to watch a baby in the rear seat.
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