January 07, 2010

Driving to Kill: Dying for Dashboard Toys

Greetings. At the ongoing Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, auto manufacturers appear to be in a race to kill more motorists than ever before.

This has nothing to do with speed or brakes per se, and everything to do with an escalating array of distracting dashboard gadgets.

Let's start with a fact. Distracted driving kills. And there are a wide variety of possible distractions. One reason that I have consistently opposed laws banning the use of hand-held cell phones when driving is that such laws do not address the core problem of distractions, which has nothing whatever to do with whether devices are hand-held or not. In fact it's the mental distractions related to interacting with these systems that create the risks. (Please see U.S. Group Wants Total Driving Cell Phone Ban -- Or -- "Are you talking to yourself again?" and associated retrospective links, for my previous discussions related to this topic.)

We know that people have died as a result of distractions caused by simply fumbling around with ordinary car radios while driving. In-dash GPS systems add another layer of distraction that is difficult to resist, even with voice guidance, but it can also be argued that GPS provides a key capability important to the basic goals of driving -- for example, getting to the right place without resorting to distracting paper maps and the like.

But lately auto manufacturers have been piling on far less necessary entertainment extras, including all manner of video playback capabilities (while driver-side video is usually supposed to be disabled while actually driving, this lockout can often be easily defeated).

Now comes word from CES that Ford is bringing Twitter services to their in-car "Sync" system -- right at the same time that moves nationwide to ban text-messaging while driving have been gathering momentum.

I like Twitter. I use it (@laurenweinstein all the time, on desktops and on my Android phone. But the thought of people driving while receiving or sending tweets -- whether as text or audio -- scares the hell out of me.

Perhaps worst of all, Ford CEO Alan Mulally reportedly told an audience at CES that because Sync is voice-activated, it's safer for drivers than using their phones in the car.

I won't call Alan a liar. Let's just say that he appears to be dangerously misinformed. Virtually every reputable study I've seen on this topic has reported that hands-free and hand-held cell phone use while driving carry the same significant distraction risks.

As I mentioned above, these dangerous distractions are intrinsic to the mental processes of interacting with these systems, and these are fundamentally the same when driving whether you're holding a cell phone, talking on a speakerphone, or even interacting with Twitter in a hands-free mode.

I like my Internet toys as much as the next person -- probably even more than most people. But I don't love them enough to want people dying as a result of auto manufacturers pushing ever more dangerous extra-cost distractions into our vehicles -- in their never-ending quest to stay financially afloat.

Much as I hate to say this, it may well be appropriate for some preemptive federal regulatory activity in this area.

Most of us need our cars. But killing or dying due to tweets or other unnecessary driving distractions is just plain stupid -- and in many cases likely criminal as well.


Posted by Lauren at January 7, 2010 12:59 PM | Permalink
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