Adventures in Distracted Driving

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Distracted drivers kill. Not just themselves, unfortunately, but innocent others: conscious drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians, passengers. In 2012, for example, 3,328 people were killed in distracted driving crashes.

So why, some of us wonder, are today’s cars designed to distract? Touch screens for multiple uses, gadgets for audible texting, voice-activated music or phone calls, GPS instructions that can be conflicted or confusing. Aids and upgrades? Or distractions?

Even with two hands on the wheel – tough, when you’re working with a touch screen – it is not possible to have any of the above in use without being distracted from the essential goal of driving: getting from Point A to Point B without endangering yourself or others. That goal once summed up the business of driving.

But cars and driving have changed in recent years. Cars are sold on the strength of how they make you feel – free, macho, superior. Driving, at least in the ads, is not a matter of getting from Point A to Point B, but “an experience.” An enhancement of self, time and energy.

My friend Mac spends a good bit of time and energy on the 1962 Volvo which is the family transportation, not always to the delight of his wife. But a functioning car is a functioning car. My own automotive experience has evolved from a 1977 Volvo stick shift to a 2000 S40, a rather spiffy little vehicle with sun roof and great radio sound – but no computer. It is increasingly difficult to find a car as uncomplicated as a 2000 Volvo S40.

Recently I was a passenger in a new car with one of the now-standard dashboard computer screens. Traveling 75 mph on a well-lit highway we were passing an accident of some sort and a police car with red and blue lights flashing when the computer screen blinked, a beep sounded and a friendly voice from somewhere said, “Hi, I just wanted to check with you about the wine.” Happily, the driver understood the blink, knew the voice, and had earlier set the interior phone to speaker since she wasn’t using ear plugs. She was immediately able to switch from the conversation we’d been having to a conversation about buying wine for the dinner party ahead that evening – while maintaining speed and staying in the same lane. The driver is also a highly skilled multi-tasker who hadn’t had any wine at all yet.

But after the phone conversation ended (and my heartbeat had gone back to normal) the driver told me she hadn’t noticed the police car.

Suppose the flashing police light had been a warning of hazard ahead? Suppose another driver on another, more troubling, phone call had done something unexpected in another lane? However skilled at both driving and multi-tasking, could my driver have had enough remaining undistracted resources to keep driving safely?

Given my choices, I would take sharing the road with Mac and his ’62 Volvo over all these roads filled with cars equipped with audible texting devices, voice-activated music systems and dashboard computer screens.

Unfortunately, we no longer have that choice.

 

 

Can geezer drivers get safer? How about texters & cellphoners?

Just how risky are distracted drivers? Texters, geezers, cellphone users? Recently, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has cranked up the heat on a major campaign to end distracted driving. Well, more power to him… except LaHood’s dsitracted campaign seems to equate driving while talking on a cell phone with driving while tripping on LSD. LaHood’s overkill has raised the ire of The Weekly Standard’s senior editor Andrew Ferguson, who rather eloquently protests what Ferguson (and a lot of others) see as one more good example of government’s overreaching foolishness.

Over the last several months LaHood has mobilized his vast and lavishly funded ($70 billion) department behind a high-minded goal: “to put an end to distracted driving.” Those are his words—not curtail, not discourage, not even reduce by 50 percent. No: Put an end to. In its ambition and method, LaHood’s initiative is a kind of textbook example of how government guys create work for themselves, manage to keep themselves busy, and put the rest of us on our guard.

Meanwhile, with LaHood overreaching and manufacturers of front-seat computer equipment over-promoting we will all have to remain on guard. Against cell phone talking drivers, texting drivers, Big Mac eating drivers and…. geezer drivers.

I, a certified geezer driver, am at risk for a crash. This is a daunting discovery when one is the only driver in a household that occasionally needs to be driven somewhere. My preference — being a resident of the beautiful, walkable city of San Francisco — is always either to walk or take the Muni, but let’s face it, there are times I need to be behind the wheel. And I hate to put you at risk. Or myself, or my passenger either, for that matter.

So you and I are about to get safer. With no help from Ray LaHood.

This all started with a recent post about geezer drivers, texting drivers and other hazards. Steven Aldrich, CEO of PositScience, commented on that post. PositScience makes brain-training software and I am not on their payroll. But I did take the “What’s my crash risk” test which you are also hereby invited to take. I whizzed through the tutorial with a whole bunch of “That’s right!” responses, then set about taking the Evaluation and promptly flunked. After a phone conversation with Aldrich and one of his software experts I am conceding that the problem is not with their software but with my geezer brain. (Try it yourself. Let me know if you fail, please, I would appreciate some company.) Here’s the deal with the test:

The Crash Risk Evaluation measures your “useful field of view”—how much your brain notices in your peripheral vision in a brief glance. Studies show that the size of a person’s useful field of view is closely correlated with car crash risk.

Useful field of view tends to shrink with age because the brain takes longer to process what it sees. As a result, in a single glance it only has time to take in what’s in the middle of a scene—not what’s in the periphery. A smaller useful field of view makes it less likely that you’ll notice potential dangers—like a car swerving into your lane or a dog running into the street—in time to avoid them.

Having had my performance on the Crash Risk Evaluation indicate that my useful field of view is smaller than average, I am deemed risky. I reserve the right to at least some suspicion about tricky tests — there is a product for sale here and clearly it wouldn’t sell if everyone passed with flying colors — but I do have a geezer brain.

Therefore, thanks to the generosity of PositScience, I am now in possession of the DriveSharp program which I’m starting tomorrow. It’s 10 hours, for heaven’s sake, so don’t look for safer roads in San Francisco this week.

This space will report on your improved road safety as my DriveSharpness progresses. Got any ideas about texting drivers?

Texting while driving kills, at any age

I had an e-mail just now from a friend who read the story, below, of my granddaughter’s accident earlier today. “You missed the point,” he said. (Why can’t I get him to register, and say this on the T/S site?) “The point is that distracted drivers total cars, distracted drivers kill. No matter how old they are.”

It’s true.

As a pedestrian, which I usually am since who wants to drive in a city like San Francisco, I have had more brushes with death from distracted drivers than I like to think about. They are talking on their phones, eating hamburgers, applying make-up, texting friends, day-dreaming, just not paying any attention to the person stepping into the street with the green light and the right-of-way. And yes, they are not all teenagers.

As a driver, if another distracted driver is in your area you can’t often jump back onto the sidewalk and survive.

We all know this, that distracted drivers kill. The knowledge doesn’t stop us. As my granddaughter says, “Everybody does it.”

Jail time for texting driver

At the risk of invoking the wrath of some readers who disagreed with my proposal to jail texting truck drivers a few weeks ago, I hereby applaud the British Crown Court for sending a texting young driver off to jail where, presumably, cell phones are unavailable. I am sad for her and her family, far sadder for the victim and her family and still angry that such stupidity is tolerated in the U.S.  Here’s the story from Oxford via the New York Times November 2:

Inside the imposing British Crown Court here, Phillipa Curtis, 22, and her parents cried as she was remanded for 21 months to a high-security women’s prison, for killing someone much like herself. The victim was Victoria McBryde, an up-and-coming university-trained fashion designer.

Ms. McBryde was killed when her car was struck while stopped beside the road.

Ms. Curtis had plowed her Peugeot into the rear end of Ms. McBryde’s neon yellow Fiat, which had broken down on the A40 Motorway, killing Ms. McBryde, 24, instantly. The crash might once have been written off as a tragic accident. Ms. Curtis’s alcohol level was zero. But her phone, which had flown onto the road and was handed to the police by a witness, told a story that — under new British sentencing guidelines — would send its owner to jail.

In the hour before the crash, she had exchanged nearly two dozen messages with at least five friends, most concerning her encounter with a celebrity singer she had served at the restaurant where she worked.

They are filled with the mangled spellings and abbreviations that typify the new lingua franca of the young. “LOL did you sing to her?” a friend asks. Ms. Curtis replies by typing in an expletive and adding, “I sang the wrong song.” A last incoming message, never opened, came in seconds before the accident.

With that as evidence, Ms. Curtis was sentenced in February under 2008 British government directives that regard prolonged texting as a serious aggravating factor in “death by dangerous driving” — just like drinking — and generally recommend four to seven years in prison.

There are no winners in this story, only losers and sadder losers. But there could be a small win if it served as a wake-up call anywhere about the fact that driving a car requires two hands and an engaged brain. It is not possible to engage the brain in watchful, decent driving when pieces of it are off somewhere in cyberspace. The only reason why there are not literally thousands of additional casualties every day from the callous stupidity of texting/cellphoning drivers is that other, saner drivers — and cautious pedestrians, who know they are at constant risk — have noticed and managed to avoid them. But texting/cellphoning drivers are outnumbering other, saner drivers at an increasingly alarming rate. They should face jail time.

Victoria McBryde had, herself, been texting her friends before her car broke down. From the side of the road she called her mother, Jennifer Ford, to say she was frightened and worried because the car service company had not appeared.

Ms. Ford told her daughter to make sure the flashers were on and that she was pulled off the road. “She was like, ‘Mom, of course I did these things,’ ” Ms. Ford recalled in an interview.

When she called her daughter back 20 minutes later, no one answered. By that time Victoria McBryde was dead.

Driven to Distraction – Britain Sets Tough New Laws for Texting While Driving – Series – NYTimes.com.