Distracted driving: Automakers and the tacit choice of profit over safety

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A minivan parked on a surface street is burning.

“Just one more tweet...” (Photo Credit: CC BY-SA/Jared Eberhardt/Flickr)

If your hands feel clammy and you become nervous and fidgety if you’re away from Internet connectivity and social media for an extended period, you have a problem. The automotive industry is apparently happy to be your enabler, distracted driving and flaming auto accidents be damned. Despite objections from the U.S. Department of Transportation and numerous auto safety groups, automakers are filling new models to the brim with in-car devices that provide connectivity at the expense of safety.

Exchanging safety for sales

According to a recent University of Glasgow study, at least half of drivers with smartphone and in-car device capability check their email once per hour, while a subset of this group check as many as 30 to 40 times per hour. Factor in text messaging, Facebook updates and Twitter, and the percentage of those who maintain constant connectivity rises dramatically.

Automotive brands want to be your tech drug dealers. Volkswagen AG’s Audi brand hypes itself as the first luxury brand to offer in-vehicle Wi-Fi, even going so far as to attach its advertising message to the functionality of Google. Nissan, General Motors and Ford embrace similar systems that make Internet connectivity and every social media network under the sun available instantly to the driver. While these titans of the automotive industry do not specifically encourage drivers to use such in-car devices and smartphone-enabled features while the vehicle is in motion, they don’t go the extra mile to discourage such use, either.

“If the auto manufacturers focused as much on safety as they do on marketing their products, we would save a lot of lives,” said National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman, who believes that in-car mobile phone and device use should be banned, even if use is hands-free.

While U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood pushes for tougher guidelines, more vehicles with distracting in-car devices and smartphones that can take the driver’s eyes off the road or attention away from dangerous roadway conditions are hitting the streets. LaHood is trying to enforce guidelines that require no single task on an in-car device or smartphone take the driver’s eyes and attention away from the road for longer than two-seconds. He would also like to see legislation stipulating that a driver must stop a vehicle and put it in park before using navigation and other information apps.

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Few automakers take the necessary steps

LaHood praised Subaru for its television commercials that urge drivers not to use mobile phones and devices while driving, but also pointed out that most automakers aren’t doing enough.

“When you’re behind the wheel of a car, anything that takes your eyes off the road or your hands off the wheel can be deadly,” said LaHood via email. “These devices may offer consumers new tools and features, (but) automakers have a responsibility to ensure they don’t divert a driver’s attention away from the road.”

Read between the lines

Numerous studies conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have pointed out that distracted driving-related accidents and their connection to the use of electronic devices are unmistakable. In the meantime, Consumer Reports panned infotainment systems like MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch for being too difficult to use efficiently – and such systems continue to appear in new models, despite the potential danger. Rob Reynolds, executive director of the anti-distracted driving group FocusDriven, told The Detroit News that message automakers are sending is a tactic one that these in-car and smartphone devices are safe to use in cars. Profit outweighs social conscience when no definitive legislation exists that would make an automaker financially liable.

App makers’ attempts ‘half-hearted’

Perhaps the most significant potential savior for infotainment system and smartphone use in cars is voice recognition, or at least simplified in-car use. The former technology remains in its infancy, while developers attempt to create “car-mode” apps has been mostly “half-hearted,” notes Daily Tech. Instead of a multitude of icons to keep drivers’ eyes off the road, car-mode apps simplify the interface greatly. Numerous navigation and information apps have this type of functionality, but it comes across as more of a concession to the safety-conscious, rather than a serious effort. If automakers and app developers were serious about making connected cars safer for consumers today, they would withhold the technology until someone can more fully develop voice recognition systems.

Distracted driving kills

Medical professionals like Edward Hallowell, author of the book “CrazyBusy: Overbooked, Overstretched, and About to Snap!,” point out that the drive toward information overload and constant online connectivity is as destructive to individuals as obesity and smoking. Addiction frequently plays a role with each, accompanied by the telltale dopamine rush. Add operating a motor vehicle to the list of things to which people are attempting to apply their drug-altered brains, and you have a recipe for disaster, where death is the ultimate distraction.

‘Device and conquer’

Sources

Daily Tech

The Detroit News

The Globe and Mail

WebMD: http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/when-technology-addiction-takes-over-your-life


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