SMART-Phone, DUMB-Driver: A Debate Worth Having – Part 3

by on February 29, 2012 · 1 comment

in Culture, Environment, Health

Editor: This is Part 3 in this series. Here is Part 1 and Part 2.

In-Car Distractions: A Debate Worth Having

By Christopher Dotson

It’s no longer simply about “Hang up and drive”, which I have always considered to be an ill-thought mentality. In retrospect, perhaps the sentiment was only ill-timed. But it’s a debate worth commencing now.

We’re doing far more these days while driving than simply “talking on the phone”.  The unlucky person who has learned “the hard way” knows, and this unfortunate person will spend the remainder of their lifetime wishing things had turned out (even a little) differently.

In truth, regarding my own near-miss, if things had turned out -even a little – differently, this article may have been written from a hospital bed, or never written.  And as I am writing this today, I remember consoling and counseling a young neighbor (we were both young, then) named Ricky after he had just run down and killed a homeless man– of course, this was long before technology could be cited or held accountable for such a tragedy about to unfold.

Ricky appeared at my doorway one night, after dropping his girlfriend off for work. Still wearing a “lost”, far and away expression, he needed someone to listen, as he recounted the horrors of running over the unseen man, who had been crossing underneath the dark, night time bridge, beneath the 405 freeway. He was reliving the moment, still fresh in his mind, and he began to exorcise the demon which invaded his thoughts and consciousness. His sorrow was heavier than ever I’ve known in another.

It was a relief knowing the police had found no cause to charge my neighbor with any offense. We sat and talked all night until it was time to get his girlfriend from work. Before leaving, he asked to trade parking spots until he could afford to deal with his car. I now vividly recall how my parking stall was deeper and more concealing, and how he edged the wrecked nose of his car, and the shattered windshield as far forward into the space, as possible.

No doubt, if a similar event happens to another, but occurring during broad daylight, their life, too, may never be the same.  From media and other reports, we only glimpse the difficulties when determining root-cause  for distracted-driver incidents, as when in-car technology was accessible but which may-not have been a contributing factor.

The recent NTSB plan begins to define and utilize new metrics for improving reports, and with some emphasis on improving investigations into crash data based upon on-scene accident victims, witnesses, and evidence of driver distractions.

It’s What We Want – Make It Better and It’ll Be Safer

Today’s high end automobiles can be programmed by the end-user. For example, the driver accesses pre-sets and/or multi-layered menus and settings which can be used to modify in-car systems for highest-performance (i.e. reset from economy to a sport package).

The Auto industry knows what we want.  And they want us to know how they can make everything better and safer, faster and cheaper.

Car makers are busy preparing to cash-in on the latest auto-techno crazes. (Some of it’s gonna’ be great! Some of it’s gonna drive grandma nuts.) At the same time, the NTSB has announced new guidelines, planned studies, and crash metrics to better determine where the fault lies, if at all. This should make for a worthwhile debate.

Why? Because Detroit and Japan are getting ready to make a whole bunch of new toys available to everyday drivers and passengers. New technology will be accessible during driving mode, while some features will only be available to the driver during vehicle non-driving mode.

All the newest product lines and auto designs include an astounding array of options for virtual in-dash components with highly-luminous LED indicators, touch-screen actuators and multi-layered menus and sub-screens. . . .

Do Your Own Study – Just Not While Driving

As was already suggested, informal studies can be conducted by anyone interested in developing an opinion. Of course, you shouldn’t do this while you are driving.

Basic observations at any on-ramp or intersection may soon reveal that a whole lotta’ folks do a bunch of distracting things while driving. At the least, tending to other “things” creates needless delays and slowing traffic patterns, adding to frustrations and anger among those who get stuck behind distracted drivers. Often times resulting in horns blaring and tempers flaring before the culprit driver behind the wheel “speeds off ashamedly or defiantly”, depending on whether they’re brandishing a hand or a finger.

My own informal studies for this article probably began around 1999, when very few people even carried cell phones. Think about it: This is still a new phenomena, which is why the “data points” being collected at each crash site are (still) being modified to collect more accurate crash-site descriptions and metrics.

It may only feel like cell phones have been around a long, long time. We often measure their proliferation in terms of “internet years”. In a decade, we’ve seen a hundred years worth of technology revisions, ring tones, and style changes. As recently as 2000, usage was rare and talking on a cell phone while walking around town in major SoCal cities still incited some rather strange looks from passersby.

Again, in historical terms, low-cost cell phones are a new phenomena, and we are only beginning to study their effects on society and for the vast majority, they’ve greatly improved daily living standards and communications.

It’s Not Just One Thing

Many common activities are distracters for drivers. Many events are “no big thing”. Still, most people we spoke with see the potential for preventing disasters on public streets and highways.

Some common events are frequently cited when describing the causes of “distracted driving”. Most will never cease, as drivers are always going to be fiddling with themselves, or their passenger, or their seat adjustments. Or maybe they’re simply trying to fasten and adjust their seat belts while driving (e.g. before the motorcycle cop can observe they weren’t wearing one).

Other driver distractions are common along our highways, as parents discipline their children, or as they try to appease their kids with “personal DVD” selections. The classic example is applying make-up, in between braking and lurching, while trying not to get stabbed in the eye. And let’s not forget, most folks need at least one hand to light a cigarette, and so now we’re adding people under the influence, or people who are in the “act of” something other than driving.

My personal favorite: Eating on the road while knee-steering. Even listening/singing to loud music – These are all considered “driver distractions”. But it’s not just these things alone, and it certainly is not about “one thing”.

Now, add to this mix the GPS voice alerting us to the fact that we missed our off-ramp which probably happens more than we would admit, ironically, caused by one of the aforementioned distractions!  Next, we’ll add an ill-timed chime to remind us we need to respond to a new text message, or the startling vibration alerting us to answer the call we were so excitedly awaiting.

This debate will never be about “one thing”.  It’s not simply a matter of talking on the phone while driving. It’s about pushing the limits.

Data-Entry Is Labor-Intensive – Not Like “Walking and Chewing Gum”

When taken alone, the most common driving distracters can cause us to repeatedly take our eyes of the road. For anyone claiming they can “barely walk and chew gum at the same time” this article probably carries some weight.

Since the enforcement of California’s cell phone ban, personal observations reveal countless incidents where cell phones have caused a distracted driver to devote “all” their attention to non-driving activities for multiple seconds at a time. As a passenger riding along on the freeway, it’s easy to observe – though, a bit nerve racking to measure the time a driver takes their eyes off the road- . We should NOT perform this “research” while driving on our own.

Repeated head-bobbing can be an obvious sign the approaching driver is not devoting their attention to the road, – the “headless-driver silhouette” I mentioned, except this time, we’re traveling at speed!. This is somewhat nerve racking when you realize what’s going on in the fast lane, directly next to your own vehicle.

I suggest avoiding these vehicles, which is always our ultimate goal.

Even with cell phone restrictions, a headless-driver silhouette or its cousin, the more recent “bobbing headless-driver” has been easy to spot, as drivers will take their eyes off the road, staring down at their lap, presumably sending/receiving texts.

“There is no research that definitely proves that speaking on a cell phone while driving is more dangerous than listening to the radio or using a GPS system while driving.”  Source:

Nothing is disproven here, and conducting definitive “research”, as implied, to obtain detailed information could represent a gross invasion of personal privacy. Given this, it seems unlikely how evidence could EVER be collected to support a conclusion which clearly indicates “talking on a cell phone while driving” is bad for public safety.

When a true emergency arises as a result of “driver-distraction”, it’ll be more than the one or two things. “The cause” will most likely remain unobserved or undetected or undetected, as the actual root-cause likely remains hidden from formal scrutiny, or extends beyond what can be observed or witnessed during any formal/informal study. As implied by various sources, modern drivers rarely admit to the actual conditions taking place prior to an accident they may have caused.

Whether daydreaming or some other in-car distraction is the culprit, accidents (I will include “near-misses”, too) are more likely to occur when numerous, sustained “distraction events” exist, concurrently.

How many distractions are too many?

Adding Complexity Creates New Forms of Distraction

Which added ingredient(s) will likely result in creating more near-misses or invoking any real catastrophe?

The NTSB and Department of Transportation (DOT) are attempting to find some answers. Studies completed over time may enable better determinations, based largely upon new data/metrics collected during crash-scene investigations.

However we know data-entry tasks, such as cell phone texting or manual dialing, can be very labor-intensive/thought-intensive, and they consume much of our attention – even for short periods – lest we enter the wrong data or dial the wrong number.

The answer: Add more technology.

The proper combination of hands-free technology will alleviate certain driver distractions, and can minimize data-entry tasks for certain pre-sets and when calling upon existing phonebook entries.

“100% hands-free driving” seems far less common. In practice, numerous “new” distractions arise simply as a byproduct of adding hands-free features. In fact, adding more equipment and becoming more reliant upon advanced features only adds to the overall complexity, as many users remain unable to correctly configure hands-free operation, let alone maintain the equipment over time.

“Call Fred, Not Ed!”

New forms of distractions are created even when adding the most tightly-integrated features.  Duplicate data or incorrect data entries, operator errors and system faults are common distracters. Additional (and intermittent) voice recognition errors will occur and vary, along with the technology and capabilities.

The “ideal” technology appearing on show room floors is far from perfect in real-world, everyday applications, despite the claims and marketing advertisements (e.g. even eighty percent voice recognition accuracy rates are difficult to achieve on a consistent basis, given the variety of real-world use cases, that is, everyday scenarios).

In real-world (practical) applications, drivers will find themselves troubleshooting a whole new set of potential problems while driving. Likely, many will become dependent on their in-car technology.

One voice command I’ve heard: I said, “Call FRED! Not TED.”  Still won’t dial correctly? Next, they’ll be rolling up the window, and then lowering the stereo volume before shouting, again: “Call FRED!”

Next, we’re closely examining the display, checking for blue tooth connectivity. Still not working? Next, we’re checking cell phone battery condition. No joy.


Checking for signal strength. . .

Checking ear-phone battery condition. . .

The irony may be, a majority of attempts to “fix” these connectivity (and other) problems will often inject (create) additional faults. Why? These are all labor-intensive. Accuracy is important. Even for trained operators, end-users frequently cause more problems than they correct, even while troubleshooting from the comfort of their home.

Some Mistakes Aren’t Easily Corrected

In the virtual world created by our “technology bubbles”, we’ve grown to rely on the <Re-Do> feature to recover from our mistakes. If only it were that easy to retrace our path and correct more grievous errors which can occur.

One thing is clear: data-entry and other labor-intensive operations require concentration, time, and dexterity. Even simple tasks can be thought-intensive since we always seem to be pressing <Backspace> and correcting our mistakes.

When auto accidents occur, we’ll wish the “Un-Do” button did exist in the real-world.

 Stay tuned for the fourth installment of the article entitled, “Pushing the limits: SMART-Phone, DUMB-Driver”.


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