Driven to Distraction

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | Jul 28, 2017

More and more we hear about new schemes being thought up by car and tech companies meant to keep people from using their phones while driving. They're not bad ideas, given that road fatalities are rising sharply, even though, ironically, cars are safer than ever, with sophisticated crash structures and airbags most numerous.  And that's not to mention seatbelt pre-tensioning, and all the lane-departure warning and collision avoidance technologies that have been brought to new cars thanks to cheap cameras in recent years.

Not that these new safety features aren't good ideas in and of themselves. But it's worth pointing out that the rise of accident-prevention technologies has surely been accelerated not just by carmakers' deeply felt regard for their fellow humans, but also by an epidemic-sized explosion in increasingly complicated phone use by drivers. People are distracted, they're crashing cars, and need all the help they can get. But these systems, meant to limit the risks of driver inattention at the wheel, can only do so much. Turns out that if you get too deep into your Snapchat or witty Facebook retorts while conducting a two-ton machine, all the nanny systems in the world won't necessarily save your texting digits for another day.

The devices aren't close to 100-percent effective accident avoidance curatives, and incredible risk remains a reality that the companies profiting most obviously from these devices and machines don't want to admit that their use inevitably permits and encourages distracted driving.  And, things being what they are, they don't have to.

Lane-departure warnings, good. Not departing your lane in the first place, better.

Remember, there was a strange moment in history not really so long ago when human society first decided that a significant number of deaths by automobile on an ongoing basis would be perfectly acceptable. Not just by accident, or pedestrians and cyclists getting run over, but because cars kill by fouling the air. They're responsible for millions upon millions of premature deaths through the years, if not more.

In this context, the carnage and death wrought by telephoning and typing while driving seems like just a little more of the same, just a few million more road fatalities in the United States, over time, with even more, elsewhere. Cars will change before the industry's position on turning off the phone in the car does – that is to say, they'll become self-driven at a cost of trillions, just so people can tweet and shop while in their cars.

"Remember, there was a strange moment in history not really so long ago when human society first decided that a significant number of deaths by automobile on an ongoing basis would be perfectly acceptable."

Don't excuse the public. People want their cars to be their phones and vice versa.  Or at least they think they do. But one thing's equally certain: the industry wants them to, too. There's more money to be made selling cars that allow drivers to remain in constant contact with the wired world than there is in selling cars that don't. Recognizing that the driving public remains hopelessly distracted by technology, and mindful of their desire to keep the love affair between drivers and tech going, the companies see some sort of nod toward safety as their obligation, lest they be perceived as unhelpful and completely in the dark as to the risk a moving, intermittently unmanned, automobile represents. The gadgets and their interface with cars are so complicated, the only answer is to go ahead and work to protect – or at least appear to protect -- the distracted motorist from him- or herself.

Nissan's Signal Shield. 

You might develop systems that disabled phones, blocked all calls and texts while driving, whether you liked it or not. You could have special codes to enter for reaching someone in an emergency perhaps.

But instead we get Band-Aids® like Nissan's Signal Shield, a box into which you place your phone. A riff on nineteenth-century inventor Michael Faraday's Faraday Cage which blocked electromagnetic waves, the Signal Shield, when closed, makes it possible that no signal can reach your phone while inside it. Nothing. It's a great idea, until you can resist the urge no longer, and reach in to grab your phone.  Not unlike, then -- and no more effective than -- switching your phone off or setting it to Do Not Disturb.

The inspiration for Nissan's Signal Shield? (Author Raymond "Peaceray" Leonard)

Last month, Apple announced a new "Do Not Disturb While Driving" mode, coming with this fall's iOS11 update for its phones. It's optional to use, but will blacken your screen and mute all notifications while also automatically replying to texts and emails, alerting callers that you are driving and will be back to them later, with the exception of certain people pre-approved by you, who can get through no matter what.  

Of course you could do all of that yourself in seconds, except the distracting part where the people you've approved call you do and (mostly) bother you. But then what could Apple say it is doing to stem the scourge of people dying while using its products – gadgets that tempt the chimp-like human mind at a subcellular level, apparently -- at the wrong time? It's the technological equivalent of the "Drink Responsibly" tags at the end of adverts shamelessly glamorizing alcoholic beverages. Good advice, if you follow it, not so useful if you're an addict.

I know the temptation presented to drivers by phones and I have on occasion yielded before them. Father and Mother, I have sinned. Still, something has to be done.

It's too bad all the tech they've been coming up with isn't making us safer in cars and too bad the ideas being proffered as to how to cut down on distracted driving are so lame. They go about as far as drug-free school zones go to keeping drugs out of schools, possibly less. They're voluntary and far too many of us forget to volunteer to not become distracted while driving.

If this were a virus or other disease killing so many, tens of billions of dollars would be thrown at it. If it were a war where this many of our citizens were in danger of being killed, you can multiply that number we'd spend into the trillions. Instead, crickets, and as finely wrought an illustration as there is of how our society lets industry do its thing with new technologies, while playing around at the margins of solutions to the hazards they pose.

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