Editor: In response to recent announcements that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is calling for further bans on in-car technology, this multiple part series by Christopher Dotson examines recent claims and studies announced by the NTSB to collect more consistent crash data. Dotson also shares personal insights into the growing phenomena and suggests ways we can all better understand the everyday impact of cell phones and mobile technology which can impact traffic, as well as public safety.
By Christopher Dotson / Special to the OB Rag
Another Accident Waiting to Happen
Approaching Ocean Beach near the end of the 8 freeway, I began slowing as the car ahead of me was already stopping for the yellowing light. I cast a glance in my rearview mirror and immediately noticed the driver behind me showed no signs he was preparing to stop.
No big deal. He had time. Surely he is not too distracted that he is blind to what’s ahead of him.
As a lifelong motorcycle rider, it’s always been standard practice to observe how driver-safety, and other forms of driver behavior, can impact driving and traffic conditions. I’m writing this article because a lot of people (myself, included!) are too easily distracted using high technology while driving and, with so many new gadgets to amuse us in the car, “distracted driving” can really push the limits of public safety, however you may define this.
Back on the 8 freeway, another quick glance at rearward traffic confirmed the car behind me was still accelerating, while my own vehicle had joined the line of cars, as I approached the final few feet at walking speed. In these moments, I still recall one news image of a motorcycle pinned in the upright position, underneath the front bumper of a truck. The bike had stopped before a red light. The truck did not. As a lifelong rider, such an image will never be forgotten.
They say time flies when you’re having fun. Conversely, you may also know how time doesn’t fly when you’re not! This was not fun to watch and, in the end, this entire sequence of events would barely consume a few clock ticks.
On this day, it did seem as if one of my worst nightmares was about to come to fruition. Looming larger and larger in the mirror, I could see the young man was fast approaching from behind, and he appeared to be fumbling with a computer gadget which was suction-cupped to his windshield. No sign of any slowing for the red light, either.
Seemingly in slow motion, and I may have had time to think, “Ah! He’s got GPS. Cool!” Again, so many things to distract us and, again, I must be included in this critique. I know some people really do process events this quickly, while others wait until they’re lying awake in bed. It’s a curse, but I tend to do both.
Returning to the real-world event unfolding, I could see the young man was wholly unaware of anything in his path: Me.
Most importantly for these real-time observations, his attention seemed one hundred percent fixed on a labor-intensive task, as he continued fiddling with the gadget which was now un-puckered from the glass. Clearly, too, he was on a collision course towards my rear bumper.
In the end, obviously this would not be one of those lifetime flashbacks, and hindsight suggests it was more akin to an “elongated moment”. Ya’ know? A moment warped by time when an unpleasant surprise develops, or is in the process of developing. As when you can only watch each micro-event unfolding, as your lid-less commuter mug of hot coffee tips over into your lap, . . . and you’re thoughts are already confirming you have no spare shirt or pants, . . . and you’re already envisioning how late you’re about to be for a very important meeting. Why didn’t I take the time to wash the spill-proof cup my godson gave me for Christmas?
For the most part, and with no small difficulty, I try to avoid allowing these sorts of “visions” from entering my stream of thought, especially when wearing a white shirt to the office! As some readers might be (correctly) thinking about “positive affirmations”, allow me to digress even further.
Once, while a pessimist inventor was feeling the frustrations of having worked many years on his most promising creation, he was overhead as saying, “Damn! It’ll never work!!” His exuberant and youthful assistant immediately chimed, “You should be more positive”, to which the inventor replied, “You’re right! I’m POSITIVE this’ll never work.”
Back to the more pressing event: I recall bracing for impact, as the GPS-fondling man behind me showed no signs of recovery. Perhaps I was thinking, “Why did I always protest those bumper stickers demanding we simply hang up and drive?” Were my instincts trying to tell me something? Perhaps the added visual distraction of a white/red sticker affixed to my rear bumper would have caused him to examine my car (and the fact that I was already at the intersection), ya’ know? Somehow, like when car makers began adding a third (center-mounted) rear brake light to our cars which, ironically, started trending in the U.S. just about the same time period when cell phones were about to become everyday items.
Of course, like most car alarms which had been so effective in the early and late 1990’s, these added center-mounted brake lights have recently evolved into fast-blinking, intensely luminous eye-catchers (which, apparently, they needed to become in order to re-gain our attention). The most common version of these third brake lights, today, are merely static red brake lights. Warning signals which were once highly visible seem now to have begun fading into the background along with all the other ambient “noise”, a phenomena which seems similar to our growing immunity towards car alarms.
For example of how we grow immune to these “distracters”, over time, a lot of folks respond to audible car alarms as merely another daily nuisance. I can still hear my old roommate saying, “Steal the @#$& car, already!” But we humans are easily capable of ignoring even the largest visual and audio queues, as we remain deeply focused on other “tasks”. If you doubt this, perhaps you’ll agree that many long-time OBceans have grown immune to the 6:30AM wake-up calls which fly overhead each morning. Sure we hear them, but do most of us rely upon these instead of our early morning alarm clock? Perhaps we do for awhile, but many times we don’t. Considering the hundreds of take-offs overhead each week, are we completely aware of each individual flight?
Keep this in mind, because that’s a primary point I’ll be asserting about adding more and more in-car distracters, such as cell phones and GPS units. And manufacturers, like the center-mounted brake lights are evolving their products to counteract a growing list of distracters, as they hope to gain (and retain) our attention.
About Christopher Dotson. After living the OB nightlife since the early 1980’s, Christopher Dotson permanently moved to San Diego in early 2001. Now an avid surfer, he is a lifelong technologist, writer, poet and songwriter who considers OB an “oasis community”, as he enjoys living, laughing, and learning about life in this unique society of thriving San Diego counter-culture.