#280 Dead Man Driving – Distracted Driving

In-car infotainment and unlimited interconnectivity equal distraction behind the wheel. Not good.

My cousin Yvonne’s husband Martyn hates flying. He’ll drive the 2,600-km, 32-hour round trip from their family home near Peterborough, England to their farmhouse in Val d’Isere in the French Alps rather than hop on a one-hour cheapie with Ryanair.
Driving through the Alps at night in winter in a car with the steering wheel on the wrong side is asking for trouble. But in spite of the fact that flying-per passenger mile-is the safest way to travel, Martyn is still gripped by a sweaty-palmed, dry-mouthed, paralyzing panic whenever he gets on a plane.
There’s no logic to this, of course. If there was, no one would ever get in a car—let alone ride a motorcycle. Somewhere deep in the unconscious is a hard-wired response that no amount of data will mollify. We fear the potential outcome of a situation far more than the likelihood of it happening. Falling out of the sky, regardless of statistics, garners a lot more apprehension than dying in a highway pileup, even though the latter is far more likely.
This message gets reinforced every day Joe Driver arrives safely in the office in spite of handling an email, a text or two and a phone call on the way. The potentially negative consequences of distracted driving seem to erode every time you get away with it. The more times you get lucky, the safer you feel. Until …
There’s a rule of thumb about industrial accidents. For every major injury there are 300 near misses. Assuming that would also apply to driving, every time Joe looks up from the smart phone on his lap and has to swerve to avoid crossing the median or rear-ending the car in front, the clock is ticking down. But Joe thinks he’s perfectly safe, because it’s never been a problem before. 299, 298, 297…
At the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the buzz is all about the connected car. That’s the idea that your car will have seamless internet access either by wireless or cellular data link. That way, “infotainment” can be beamed directly to your vehicle’s dashboard screen. If not already, you’ll soon be able to search the internet or make online purchases through “embedded connectivity units.” Think of it as a tablet device built into your car, with SMS, email, GPS and a hundred other functions.
A 2013 Mercedes, for example, will update your Facebook status while you’re driving, and offer other apps and services that “enhance the driving experience,” like heads-up displays and gesture recognition software. Merc’s nod to the extra distraction this might cause is a proximity detection system that will apply the brakes to avoid a potential collision.
Subaru, meanwhile, plans to offer its drivers access to services they’ve subscribed to on their cellular devices, including Facebook and Twitter. To “minimize distraction,” these services will appear like a fourth band on a car radio screen. Toyota’s Entune system will let drivers make restaurant reservations on OpenTable and use Bing to search the Internet. Ford will also offer in-car systems, but will limit the apps that you can access from behind the wheel.
And while car makers are reputable companies with a responsibility to their customers and concerns about product liability, the car accessory aftermarket certainly isn’t. Expect over-the-counter devices to be far more interactive. The prospect raises driver distraction to a whole new level. Is driving a distraction from interfacing—or the other way round?
In 2010 in the US, 3,092 deaths (9.4 per cent of all highway fatalities) were attributed to driver distraction, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which also points to a growing consumer class of young people who have no idea of not being connected. And the National Transportation Safety Board has effectively abandoned any attempt to slow the growth of in-car infotainment, admitting that regulation is always going to be slower than innovation. Meanwhile, of all vehicles sold in the US this year, 5.8 million will be fitted with embedded connectivity units.
The defence coming from the auto industry takes any of four basic approaches. First, that it’s impossible to stop people wanting to connect while driving. Secondly, by promoting the idea that interacting is no more distracting than changing stations on the radio. Thirdly, to restrict the amount of interaction drivers can have with their embedded systems. And finally, to hand over responsibility for crash avoidance to proximity alarms and automatic driver override control systems.
I don’t know about you, but I find this future scenario terrifying. I’ve watched drivers drift across lanes, miss stop signs, suddenly change speed and direction, turn without signaling and back up other cars in the passing lane, all because they’re gassing on the phone. There’s plenty of evidence to show such extra-vehicular interactions cause driver inattentiveness—hands-free or not, heads-up or not—and are not only on a par with drunk driving, but are also the most common cause of vehicle collisions. Nor am I convinced that any proximity response system would cope adequately with the most common type of car-motorcycle collision, where the car turns left across the rider’s course. Most likely, the car would stop dead in the bike’s path. So, cosily ensconced inside his two-ton steel cage, Joe Future-Driver will be able to connect with friends, interact with online content and update his Facebook status from behind the wheel—until his 300 lives run out, that is …