This blog’s focus is safer teen driving, but let me digress to a larger issue about safe driving in general.
I research topics for posts on this blog primarily by reading everything remotely relevant that I can find. Most recently, I have followed closely the “Driven to Distraction” series in The New York Times, written mostly by reporter Matt Richtel; the book Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt (excellent); and websites of such organizations as the Safe Roads Coalition, AAA Foundation, Center for Disease Control, and NHTSA. In addition to timely information, these sources give me hope that teen driver fatalities and crashes will continue to decline as they have in recent years, and that parents across the country will become ever more aware of the dangers of teen driving and increasingly informed and proactive as they oversee their newly-licensed drivers.
These sources also discuss the burgeoning array of safe driving technologies, such as front end sensors that stop a car and prevent a crash even when the driver doesn’t brake. From my reading it is clear that, across the nation, thousands of people are working hard every day to educate drivers, inform parents, and improve automobile safety in general and teen driver safety in particular.
Which is why it drives me crazy (pun neither intended nor avoidable) to read about the forces that are making driving more dangerous.
Matt Richtel’s recent columns have spotlighted the trend, now in progress, of auto manufacturers adding more distracting electronics to cars, mainly multi-purpose, interactive computer screens that offer not only telecommunications, navigation, and sound systems but also consumer electronics and video entertainment. (Mr. Richtel, by the way, deserves not only the Pulitzer Prize but the Nobel Peace Prize for his tireless efforts and penetrating analyses of these trends). The functions, sophistication, and availability of these systems are limited only by the imaginations and collaborations of electronics and auto industry engineers and consumer preferences and budgets, but there does not appear to be any doubt that: dashboards will be the location; big screens will be the basic installation; distracting, interactive functions will be the norm; and entirely preventable crashes and fatalities will be the result.
I am not an electronics expert, and predicting the exact shape of these imminent amenities is not my focus. The point is that while research is pouring in about the dangers of distracted driving, electronics and auto manufacturing companies are working as quickly as they can to introduce new features into cars that, we can predict with certainty, will counteract the efforts of the public safety community.
It appears from what I have read that the universal defense from the business community is that they are only responding to consumer demand, and as is their mantra, safety “is a matter of individual responsibility.” In other words, if your car comes with a dashboard-mounted screen that allows you, while driving on an Interstate, to launch a browser, search for the nearest restaurant, and display reviews of its food and service, then it is simply up to you as a driver to do so responsibility and safely.
The fallacy of this argument, of course, is that driving, more than any other activity in our society, implicates the safety of others. As Tom Vanderbilt, in his book Traffic, so aptly observes, in no other places do so many people, such a diverse population, mingle so freely – and dangerously – as on highways and public streets. In no other activity does one person randomly threaten more people than when a driver takes his eyes off the road to interact with a video screen or use a keyboard.
Thus, we have ongoing today, simultaneously, not only nationwide efforts to improve safety, but also to introduce into cars new technologies that will cause death and serious injury in exactly the ways that so many are trying to prevent. This marching in opposite directions is simply madness.