The next time I am out driving at 75mph in my beat-up Toyota minivan, I'm going to crack open the book I've been trying to finish for a couple of days now. As far as I can tell, there are no laws against reading while driving. If I can prop the book up on my dashboard, it will even be considered "hands-free," so I know it won't violate any kind of safety rules.
As long as something is hands-free, it is considered safe. At least that is what car manufacturers want you to think. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, the following capabilities will soon be available in automobiles:
- Ford: Stream Internet music, access news and podcasts, send a Tweet
- Toyota: Buy movie tickets, book a table, check stocks, search on Bing
- General Motors: Play videos and slide shows, access songs via voice command
- Tesla Motors: Wireless Internet with 17-inch-screen, USB plugs
- Mercedes-Benz: Check Facebook, read Twitter posts, use Google Local Search and Yelp
These are the same car makers that advertise the safety features of their automobiles every single day. I guess antilock brakes and airbags do come in handy if you are involved in a collision because you were updating your Facebook status while driving.
Hands-free does not qualify as "safe." If you take your eyes off the road, you are distracted. Distraction is what causes accidents.
Here is some data cited by the WSJ that supports both sides of the distracted-driving argument:
Auto makers point to studies, including one by researchers at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which show that talking on a cellphone increases the risk of a crash or near-crash by 1.3 times over regular driving, while physically dialing a number increased the risk 2.8 times. A person is more than 20 times more likely to be in a crash or near crash while sending text messages.
Such data, which was gathered by monitoring hundreds of hours of drivers with cameras in day-to-day driving, has guided auto makers and the administration to the conclusion that "hands-free" activities are safe. Other studies, including one by University of Utah researcher Michael Strayer, show that talking on the phone, hands free or not, is equally dangerous. Most of newer car-electronics systems permit access to controls through a touch screen.
Carmakers insist they are just giving people what they want by piling electronics entertainment features in their cars. Being connected is a No. 1 priority. I get that. But there's a difference between being connected and being entertained. Is it really urgent that you get Facebook updates or tweets while you are driving? If something were that important, wouldn't your acquaintances call?
The fact is, even if my hands are still on the steering wheel, most of these functions are distracting. I would have to take my eyes off the road for a few seconds for most of them. But how many times have your voice-activated systems misinterpreted what you were saying? Or a search engine turns up the wrong search? Or asks you "Did you mean X?" Have you ever gotten a tweet that is upsetting?
Then there is the issue of the technology. Voice activation has gotten better. Touchscreen technology and smart features (e.g. your device anticipating what you are about to ask for) have not. I touch the wrong thing all the time on touchscreens, and my typing isn't much better. I cancel; I delete. I start again. Sometimes I still grope for the right knob or dial in my rapidly-aging minivan.
Does a touchscreen know you meant to turn on the radio and not the wipers? I haven't met one that does. For an industry that spends decades developing and testing safety technology for vehicles, the standard for consumer electronics is surprisingly lax. The interfaces are still spotty and require a lot more attention than I can spare when I am on a highway. And the time I most need directions or to get updated on news and traffic is when I am driving full speed ahead and already stressed. In other words, distracted.
I understand people spend hours sitting in traffic, and that's when most of these functions are the most useful. If there was a way to limit these functions to speeds of 20mph or less, I might feel a bit safer. In fact, I know that technology exists. In the meantime, I'll tweet you about what route I am taking to my next appointment and you can find an alternative. I've got some reading to catch up on.