When you’re sat in a comfy seat, warm and dry, listening to a great album, singing along, thinking about dinner, or perhaps chatting to your friend, spouse or chinese takeaway it’s easy to forget you’re in over a tonne of metal travelling at speed.
When you’re learning you’re always paying attention to the road, checking your mirrors and being aware of the dangers around you. Someone might walk into the road, some idiot might pull out in front of you (no particular brand owners mentioned, but you know who they are). When you’ve passed your test though you might not be quite so vigilant.
Modern cars have only made the problem worse. Even though California recently allowed texting and emailing via voice only whilst driving research has again shown that distracted driving is still dangerous. Talking to someone places far higher mental demands on drivers, reducing their concentration on the really important task – staying between the white lines and not hitting anything. A few years ago David Strayer and colleagues from the University of Utah compared mobile phone users to drunks in a driving simulator. The talkie drivers showed significant impairment and slower braking reaction, roughly similar to participants who registered a .08 percent blood-alcohol content.
In tests of texters handheld typers naturally took their eyes off the road for longer periods than normal but even those using a handsfree to dictate to the phone took their eyes off the road for long periods too. When you’re trying to concentrate on what you want to say you’re brain will focus on that rather than the outside world so your eyes will wander. A counter-argument that drivers talk to passengers all the time is counter-countered by the facts that the conversation is often about the traffic, other drivers and so on and also that many accidents are caused when the driver is having an absorbing discussion or blazing row with the passenger alongside them and/or the kids in the back. It is why so many accidents involve a car full of friends, loud music, and often but not exclusively young, inexperienced drivers.
Car makers haven’t helped though. I like a car where I can alter the temperature, open a window, change the track or the volume on the MP3 player or switch on the hazard lights by reaching out to a familiar location and flicking a switch. While it still takes some attention away from the road at least you’re still watching the road, using muscle-memory to find the control, knowing by tactile feedback if it’s set right, and then a very quick glance can confirm this. Many cars though have just about everything set by some kind of menu, operated by a joystick so you have to watch a screen in order to set the aircon and so on. On a recent Ferrari tested on Top Gear you even had the choice of seeing either the speedometer or satnav display – that shouldn’t have been even considered.
Voice control has been around for a while but generally only for basics like phone dialing and satnav but some manufacturers are now starting to consider advanced controls, for example the eye-tracking and Kinect-like gesture controls as seen in Hyundai’s recent HCD14 Genesis concept.
Driverless cars promise much but still have a long way to go and the technology that has made its way into cars so far such as automatic braking could easily encourage drivers to pay less attention to the road, lulled into a false sense of security that the car will save them from an accident.
I know personally that you can easily even be distracted while driving by feeling anxious or upset about something – the realisation that you’ve driven a mile down a road but can’t remember doing it is a sign of this distraction and is disturbing – but we need to remember the importance of making sure that tonne of metal doesn’t hit anything and the less things that get in the way of that the better.