Driven to Distraction

It’s time again for the annual Consumer Electronics Show, which is going on right now in Las Vegas NV.  As usual, there will be many new products announced.  It seems that one focus of attention this year is the development of 3-D television, interest in which has undoubtedly been sparked by the success of the movie Avatar.  I’m somewhat skeptical that being able to watch the same old dreck in 3-D will make my life more fulfilling, but we shall see.

The New York Times has a report on another developing trend that gives me considerably more pause.  These are several vendors that are introducing, or about to introduce, systems that essentially embed an Internet-connected PC in the dashboard.

This week at the Consumer Electronics Show, the neon-drenched annual trade show here, these companies are demonstrating the breadth of their ambitions, like 10-inch screens above the gearshift showing high-definition videos, 3-D maps and Web pages.

A photo accompanying the article shows a screen, mounted to the right of the steering wheel, displaying an application that lets the driver browse through a selection of music albums.  There are numerous other applications, too:

One system on the way this fall from Audi lets drivers pull up information as they drive. Heading to Madison Square Garden for a basketball game? Pop down the touch pad, finger-scribble the word “Knicks” and get a Wikipedia entry on the arena, photos and reviews of nearby restaurants, and animations of the ways to get there.

As someone who has spent a good deal of time traveling by bicycle, in New York City and elsewhere, the prospect of equipping drivers with additional electronic toys that they can play with instead of paying attention to their driving fills me with horror.  I have long ago lost count of the number of close calls I’ve had with drivers who  were so busy chatting on their cell phones that they forgot to watch where they were going.  I can hardly wait till they’re engrossed in reading the history of Madison Square Garden in Wikipedia.  And there is evidence that this effect is not just my imagination:

Even in 2003, when fewer people were multitasking in cars, researchers at Harvard estimated that motorists talking on cellphones caused 2,600 fatal accidents and 570,000 accidents involving injuries a year.

One thing that I have learned about road safety from cycling (and, believe me, removing the seemingly protective metal shell of the automobile does concentrate the mind wonderfully) is that one needs to devote 100% of one’s attention 100% of the time to riding safely.  Daydreaming about the cute guy or girl you saw at lunch, or otherwise watching a movie inside your head, is the surest way I know to end up as a statistic.

Charlie Klauer, a researcher at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, says motorists face a much greater crash risk when looking at a screen, even if it is just a simple GPS map. She says the overall danger for drivers will rise as screens deliver additional streams of data.

The longer a motorist looks away from the road, “the risk of crash or near crash goes up exponentially — not a linear increase, but exponentially,” Ms. Klauer said. “So when you start introducing things like e-mail, Internet access, restaurant options or anything like that, the risk goes up.”

The manufacturers, of course, claim that their products will include all kinds of features to promote safety.  For example, Audi’s system has a warning to drivers:

A notice that pops up when the Audi system is turned on reads: “Please only use the online services when traffic conditions allow you to do so safely.”

Somehow, providing another message for the driver to read does not strike me as the best way to ensure his attention is focused on the road ahead.

I have written before about the current mania for “multi-tasking”, and the research that seems to demonstrate that:

  • People really aren’t very good at it, and
  • The people who think they are best at it actually are the worst.

We have heard a lot of hot air and hyper-ventilation about the risk of terrorism in the last couple of weeks, in the aftermath of the Christmas “Underpants Bomber”.  It is worth remembering that, in 2008, about 37.000 people were killed in auto accidents in the US.  Although this was the lowest death toll since 1961, it still represents more casualties than occurred on 9/11, every month.  We hardly need to make driving any more dangerous than it already is.

One Response to Driven to Distraction

  1. […] here before about my doubts regarding people’s claims of being able to multi-task, and also, more recently, about a new crop of distractions for drivers.  Driving is a reasonably demanding cognitive task, […]

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