Hey, over here! No, over here! No, over here!
Posted July 9, 2012
I’m sure that things have been distracting drivers ever since the first cars putt-putted out onto dirt roads. No doubt some guy drove his Stanley Steamer into a ditch because he caught a glimpse of three inches of a female pedestrian’s ankle. And no doubt distractions for drivers have become more sophisticated along with society. But is there any doubt we have reached the golden age, first spurred on by mobile phones (which quickly became a necessity, third only to eating and breathing), followed (even worse) by smart phones.
The image along with this blog was Photo of the Week #380 on the Naval Safety Center website, entitled “Hands free!” It drew an email from a web visitor who had posted it on a bulletin board. “That would make texting easier!” someone observed to him. “And I am afraid she was serious,” he wrote to us.
Technology is a two-edged sword. We invent a slew of labor-saving devices, but people just keep piling on tasks so that they are busier and more stressed than ever.
When cars enter the equation, the problem gets serious. If you answer the phone while sitting on your couch, maybe you just miss some of “The Big Bang Theory.” When you’re distracted by your phone while driving, you can kill someone.
Perception of this hazard wasn’t helped by early, erroneous media coverage that the problem was a manual distraction (having to push buttons). Research has shown that the actual problem is being mentally distracted by the conversation. The fact that a phone is hands-free removes little of the risk.
A decade’s worth of research has also shown drivers distracted by a phone call aren’t aware they are impaired, and that cell phone use slows the driver’s reaction times significantly. Drivers who text admit that doing so is dangerous, but only when other drivers are doing it.
Yet the ability to gossip, update your Facebook page, make a dinner reservation, tell your car to play you that album you just uploaded, all while trying to navigate rush-hour traffic, seems irresistible.
People need a Risk-O-Matic, an imaginary device I invented in an issue of the Friday Funnies in January 2004. It started as a simple mishap-probability calculator, with a keyboard for entering information (such as “no seatbelt” or “test-driving a borrowed motorcycle with zero training”) and a revolving circular gauge that indicated risk level.
I later made up a distinctive warning klaxon (“Onnnkkk!”). I played with the concept in nearly 40 messages since then. I sometimes warn readers to “turn down the volume on your Risk-O-Matic” before describing a particularly egregious mishap, such as the one about the three Sailors in a Mercedes who were heading south from New York after two days in the Big Apple. None were wearing seatbelts, and the driver had had his driver's license for all of six days. He took a call on his cell phone traveling at 70 mph. He lost on a curve while trying to replace the phone in its holder. The front passenger woke up, grabbed the wheel, overcorrected, and steered the car into a tree.
Last January, I announced the new Risk-O-Matic app for smart phones, which offers a spectrum of interactive features. For example, it provides (thanks to GPS and the Naval Safety Center data base) seasonal and landscape-based alerts, such as “Tight curve ahead, last driver who entered at your current speed is pushing up daisies.”
I’ve been pleased to learn that actual technology has caught up to and surpassed my pretend technology. It first occurred to me when a co-worker was telling me about a cab ride he’d taken in Singapore, which featured a recurrent, annoying, Onnnkkk-like warning sound. He asked the cab driver what the heck and learned that it was a warning that the cab was exceeding the speed limit. The cab driver was content to ignore it.
Other kinds of modern technology sound good. Some models can maintain distance from the car in front, or detect when drowsy drivers start to weave, rousing them with an alarm. On the horizon is something called “lane-keeping technology.” One carmaker calls it “Lane Keep Assist,” says a New York Times article, to “keep expectations from getting out of hand.”
Shades of the woman who put her RV on cruise control and went into the back to make a sandwich.
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