Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Distracted Drivers: Is MoreTechnology The Answer?

In October of 2002, the driver of a pickup on an Alaskan highway strayed across the center line and plowed head-on into an oncoming SUV. The driver of the pickup survived, but the two occupants of the SUV were killed.

The driver of the pickup was watching a DVD at the time.

In June of 2006, a University of Utah researcher released a study indicating that drivers who are using cell phones (either hand-held or hands-free) are as dangerous as drunk drivers.

Driving while distracted is dangerous... and often a technical gadget of some sort is responsible for the distraction. First mobile phones, then car mounted DVD players... I can only imagine the mahen will take place on the roads when Video Glasses become more popular with drivers.

Adding to the danger of technical distractions is our generally aging population: In early July of 2006, a confused 88 year old driver in Albuquerque entered I-25 the wrong way, and caused a pile-up that killed a 19 year old motorcyclist.

Our roads are increasingly filled with drivers whose abilities are impared... some by choice, and others by age. We need to do somethng about this.

Restrictions will not work.

I passionately curse drivers who are talking on their mobile phones in traffic... but I do it myself.

Common sense should keep anyone from watching a DVD as they drive down the road... but common sense is not very common. Even if we outlawed the mounting of DVD players in vehicles (which I doubt would ever happen), some folks would still travel with their portable units.

We could take away the driver's licenses of all old people (yeah, right) but many would continue to drive without licenses.

Restrictions are not the answer.

Is more technology the answer for the problem of distracted drivers? I think it might be.

DARPA's robotic road rally has shown us that self-driving vehicles are closer to fact than to fiction... In just a few years competitors went from simply seeing how far they could travel to actually competing for the best finish times. Impressive.

On a more modest scale, adaptive cruise controls are already commercially available (These systems adapt a vehicle's speed to maintain safe following distances) and Toyota will soon offer cars that automate parallel parking.

We have a choice to make: We can either give up our distracting gadgets (unlikely) or we can surrender our driving duties to automated chauffers.

A third choice is to develop smarter technologies that help refocus our attention on the road when traffic gets crazy... automatically turn down the music, mute the call, suspend the video... sort of like having an automated dad yell at you to pay attention.

These "pay attention" technologies would have applications far broader than driving... Wouldn't it be nice if iPods muted themselves when you spoke to their owners? How about a TV that pauses itself when your spouse asks you a question? My favorite would be a mobile phone that shushes its user whenever they're loudly talking in a public place.

But I digress...
We shouldn't need technology to make us good drivers... but we are what we are. If more technology can make driving safer, then we need to encourage the adoption of this technology.
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