A new survey released Monday shows that over 85% of teens admit to driving while distracted. In other news, the Pope announces he’s Catholic, and the woods are full of bear poop.
While this survey focused on teens, I doubt the adults would fare a lot better, so it’s perhaps unfair to single them out. Although as the most inexperienced drivers and the most cell addicted, they are likely at greater risk.
One interesting point was the difference between people surveyed as drivers and those surveyed as passengers. As drivers, they came up with lots of rationalizations about why their sideline activity posed little risk. But as passengers, 38% claimed that another driver’s distractions made them scared they were going to get hurt. This is a point I’ve tried to make to my son who’s now learning to drive. As the driver, it’s not enough to keep your passengers safe, but you also have an obligation to make them feel safe.
Ultimately though, I think this is a losing battle. It would be easy to blame all the distractions of modern life and the desperately brief attention spans of our youth for these risks. The natural inclination is to pass tougher laws against this sort of behavior. But for every person you scare out of sending a text while driving, another is now trying to text from their lap rather than the steering wheel so that the phone is not visible.
I think the larger problem is simply the current technology state of our cars. There was a time when driving was a challenge—no power steering, no ABS, manual transmissions, manual chokes, giant land cruisers that cornered like a double-decker bus. Ahhh, those were the days. Not that I pine for them much, but driving back then required more of your attention. As the years have passed, driving a car has become dirt simple. Turn the key, point the wheel, press the gas. Cars have become almost impossible to stall, difficult to skid, and frankly pretty idiot proof. That is, right up until the point of imminent danger.
Driving today is endless hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. And while our technology has made the endless hours ever more boring, the bits of sheer terror are alive and well. Whether or not you are a good driver has everything to do with how you handle the moments, and fleetingly less to do with how you handle the hours. But if you’re distracted during the hours, then the moment will be upon you before you can react. And that leads to lots of twisted metal, and bloody body bits.
I don’t think any amount of legislation or education will ultimately stop people trying to do something to relieve the boredom. I do think the natural course of technical evolution is likely to create cars that increasingly reduce and maybe eliminate the terror. Structured roads, auto-pilots, and other advances will one day pretty soon free us to be as distracted as we like. The vast amount of time we spend in cars will be where we all are passengers. You may still drive out of your neighborhood and into the parking lot at the other end, but the stretch in between on the public roads will be a hands-free driving experience leaving you free to text, read, or watch TV. Just like you’re doing now, just with less terror.