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Driven to Distraction, by Electronics

There is probably nothing more distracting than to fry bacon on a hot plate on the front seat of your pickup while driving.  Hey, that could happen.  My brother tells me that he met some old codger who claims to have done that.  Maybe you can get away with that in the boonies of central Texas but you cannot do that on I10 in Houston, the LA freeway or the Beltway around D.C.  Yet people are doing things just as distracting or worse while using electronics.  Texting has to be the best example of this.  I recently saw a woman in a Lexus SUV drive over a curve while texting.  Luckily she was going slow so when she  hit the tree there was not much damage.  And she didn’t drop a stroke.  Obviously driving is the distraction.

Drivers have been distracted from day one.  It has just gotten worse.  Just talking to another person in the car is a distraction.  Disciplining the kids is distracting.  Listening to the radio or a CD is a diversion.  Drinking a Slurpee, putting on makeup, smoking, shaving, eating a Big Mac, and managing a scalding hot 16 ounce Starbucks are disruptions.  All have caused accidents but they are not against the law.

Now that cell phones rule our lives, we can’t go for even a few minutes without trying to communicate.  The younger generation thinks that driving and talking on the cell phone just go together.  The first thing people do when they get in the car is make a call, text, check email, do a web search or whatever.  The distraction problem has become an epidemic. Yet the auto manufacturers are  hell bent to put even more electronics in new vehicles. 

Nav screens in the center of the dash are distracting in themselves, but they have become the central control point for most of the electronic entertainment in the car. Cars already have such things a backup cameras, TV screens for the rear seats, surround sound, and 180 channels of satellite radio. What more can we pile on?  Why not just put a big LED flat panel on the dashboard and hook it up to a TV antenna and be done with it?  Make that 3D while you are at it.  And oh by the way, give me a camera so I can Skype while driving.

Let’s face it, driving is essentially a boring task.  Most people don’t even consider driving a skill.  The whole process seems to be automatic without thinking.  Being in heavy traffic is irritating and time wasting and long night drives put you to sleep.  One of my favorite movie quotes is from the 1934 film It Happened One Night.  Claudette Colbert told her overly chatty seat mate, Shapeley, on the bus: “You bore me to distraction.”  Is that driving?

Almost everyone believes that they can actually walk and chew gum at the same time.  I know I can do other stuff while driving.  What’s the big deal.  We have all become the ultimate multitaskers so why not keep busy during those mind-numbing commutes? 

Don’t get me wrong, I am for more electronics in our cars.  Most of it is useful even essential.  Electronic direct injectors save fuel, ABS makes stops safer, and skid control makes handling safer in bad weather.  Air bags keep us safe in a collision and rollover and systems like OnStar helps out in an emergency.  What’s not to like?

I don’t have a solution for this.  I have witnessed too many incidents just in routine around town driving.  It is a problem.  Should that be jail for texting or just community service?  I am a paranoid driver anyway so I tend not to try anything too distracting.  I do use my Bluetooth hands free hookup to make and take calls.  That is at least a safety feature.  And if I do use my Garmin for nav, I turn on the voice directions rather than try to look at the map.  I do listen to the radio which is a minimal distraction.   Besides, I still drive a standard shift car so the 6-speed and clutch keep me occupied.

I generally welcome any new electronics. I think it is asking for trouble to put a Wi-Fi connection in a car, then again if you have a smartphone you have one anyway if you can find an access point.  I do like the radar braking feature on some high end cars.  It probably should be a standard feature.  I am against laws keeping us from doing what we want but in a crowded society today, you have to draw the line.  Maybe the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) should get more involved.  Unfortunately, any government agency set up for one purpose will attempt to find more new things to regulate then go totally overboard.  I hate when that happens.  But we all hated seat belts and air bags at first, yet they get the job done and most of us are used to them by now.  (I can’t believe I am calling for government help here.)

Perhaps what we really need is a cure for short attention span and attention deficit disorder (ADD) that are probably at the root of the distracted driving problem.  Don’t blame the smartphone, it’s the person using it.  That is not NTSB’s sphere of influence, but it is something to think about.  How does one get such a malady anyway?  Do you get that from too much TV, too many video games or incessant web access checking your Facebook page?  It is a disease you get easily over time without even knowing you have it.  And there is no cure.

So what is the solution?

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