Mobile ADD

2 03 2011

Not a days go by in which I don’t see someone sharing a horrific video on FB about the dangers of texting and driving. It is the cause du jour, and state and local governments have responded predictably by enacting laws and ordinances banning it.

Of course, distracted driving has existed ever since parents started driving their kids around. As long as cars have had radios. As long as restaurants had carry-out (or the oh-so-convenient drive-thru window).

Not a one of us is without guilt. We all do it: balancing hot coffee, yelling at the kids, tapping the Seek button, and yakking on the phone. Oh, for a few extra hands for moments like these!

So I am not surprised to read that 19% of drivers admit to surfing the web while driving. And given that the study queried 30-somethings (not the heaviest users of mobile devices), the percentage is likely much higher among teens and young adults.

What scares me is not so much those 19% (or however many there are). No, it is the tendency of legislators to rush to ban something after it hits the headlines. The truth, though, is that distraction has been with us for years, and texting and surfing are only the two latest manifestations of the problem. No one seems too concerned about all the other distracting things we do in our cars.

Back in the 70s, my friends and I routinely sifted through cases of 8-Tracks and cassettes. By the 80s, we had replaced them with CDs. Twenty years later it was iPods. The point is, in our quest to be a portable DJ and provide the best sonic transportation experience available, we were really just practicing for the texting era.

And let’s not forget the fact that the dashboard has become our dining room table. Who among us hasn’t dropped a sandwich or spilled a Big Gulp? If it takes two hands to handle The Whopper, how many does that leave for driving?

Knees don’t count.

Worse, I have seen men shaving while driving, and women apply makeup. The rear view mirror is not a vanity, but it is often used for that purpose. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Interestingly, Wired Magazine reported last year that 1 in 40 of us are Supertaskers…people who are actually quite capable of driving and doing other things. The problem is in determining if you are in this elite group. Like the residents of Lake Wobegon, I suspect nearly all of us think we are above average drivers.

And everyone else is either an idiot (the guy going faster) or a moron (the guy going slower).

So what should we then do?

I am not convinced that banning texting, talking, surfing, etc., is the route to highway safety….alone. In order to be effective, we need to ban eating and driving, as well as all other forms of distraction. It’s not going to be easy to enact (or enforce), but distraction is distraction. The causes of it are irrelevant.

And what we really need to fast track are smartcars…no, not the tiny 2-seater from Europe, but cars with completely hands-free Infotainment centers. Some makers are launching such products, but we have a long way to go (see the Feb 2011 issue of Popular Mechanics for a great review). Compatibility is a nagging issue, because the few currently making these all focus on their proprietary systems. And how many US families have only one car?

No, we need systems that will work with all of our mobile devices, are compatible between vehicles, are app-driven, and completely voice-activated. This still will not eliminate the problems of eating, dressing, shaving and painting while driving, nor parenting. But it will go a long way toward making our highways and streets safer. Our busy lives dictate multitasking as a way of survival, and we need to get over that. Our cars are also our mobile offices, and there are not enough breakdown lanes on the highway system to accommodate us pulling over to attend to these tasks.

In other words, the problem is not really texting/talking/surfing while we drive. The real problem is lifestyles lived at warp speed, 28 hours crammed into 24.

And this is a golden opportunity for inventors and manufacturers to step up to the plate to solve this problem. Just like car makers started providing cup holders every 2 inches (recognizing that passengers like to guzzle while en route), it is time to address this much broader social problem.

When they do, you can bet that they will have my undivided attention. Because I want to arrive alive. And you, too.

Dr “Going Mobile” Gerlich

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