As road toll soars, experts see vehicles as ‘candy stores’ of distraction

apachedash-300x177Anyone who has so much as contemplated buying a vehicle in recent times will quickly catch on to what experts fear may be a root cause of the nation’s spiking road toll: Step back and consider just how much importance manufacturers — and consumers — pay to those rolling infotainment systems.

Their screens have grown and dominate the dash. They no longer just control a tinny AM radio. They’re the gateway to powerful and all-encompassing entertainment systems. These can deliver high-fidelity music of all varieties, sports contests, news, and political commentary, as well as digital visual content viewable by passengers. The touchpad systems regulate the heat, air conditioning, and interior lighting. They also display ever-more sophisticated navigation, with dizzying maps, road and traffic conditions and warnings, as well as audio narratives of directions and even route highlights.

And what motorist now doesn’t have her cellphone linked into the “smart” vehicle system. This means dozens of contacts can be reached via conversation with a digital assistant, who then can hook a motorist up with the office, boss, spouse or partner, kids — and who knows who else? Combine this all, of course, with other driver displays — including speed, RPM, fuel consumption and conservation, engine temperature, and more.

Vehicles have become “a candy store of distraction. And we are killing people” as a result, David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist, told the Los Angeles Times.

He is the director of the University of Utah’s Center for the Prevention of Distracted Driving, and, as the newspaper reported, has expertise in information overload. The U.S. military called him to help study the distress experienced by pilots of Apache attack helicopters in responding to “a torrent of information” that once inundated those in the cockpit on digital screens and analog displays (as shown above):

“The cognitive overload caused by all that information was degrading performance and raising the risk of crashes, the researchers [including Stayer] determined. Pilots were forced to do too many things at once, with too many bells and whistles demanding their attention. Over the next decade, the Army overhauled its Apache fleet, redesigning cockpits to help operators maintain focus.”

Strayer told the newspaper this:

“’We are instrumenting the car in a way that is overloading the driver just like we were overloading the helicopter pilots. Everything we know from pilots being overloaded we can apply to motor vehicles,’ Strayer said. But rather than apply it, makers of smartphones and automobiles largely have ignored the research, persistently adding popular but deadly diversions.”

Automotive reporter Russ Mitchell gives vehicle makers some due for high tech safety features, including side- and rear-view camera systems and programs that warn drivers of objects in blind spots and if they stray across lanes.

Even those additions, however, may get smothered in the information fog that envelops drivers and passengers, leading to data that cannot be ignored, Mitchell reported:

“After decades of falling fatality rates, U.S. roads have become markedly more dangerous in recent years. In 2021, motor vehicle crashes killed nearly 43,000 people. That’s up from about 33,000 in 2012, and a 16-year high. Theories about why range from bigger vehicles — mammoth SUVs and pickup trucks on steroids — to aggression caused by Covid-era trauma. But no one in the safety field doubts that distracted driving is a main ingredient. Reported fatalities due to distracted driving have remained flat for the last 10 years, 3,000 to 4,000 a year. But there is good reason to consider those figures a major undercount, as they rely on people admitting they were distracted, or a police officer or someone else witnessing a driver with phone in hand before a crash. It’s against people’s self-interest to say, “I was on the cellphone” or “I was using the infotainment system”’ after a crash, ‘because there can be serious consequences,’ said Cathy Chase, who heads Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety. ‘I don’t think we’re getting an accurate picture of what’s happening on the roads.’”

Reporter Mitchell marshals distressing data showing that distraction is a bigger problem than may be acknowledged now and one that demands more urgent remedy:

  • A poll by a national insurer found that its agents believe 50% of all crashes involved distracted driving.
  • A safety group found in its polling that 70% of motorists responding said they use cellphones while driving. That increased to 86% of people who use their cars for work.
  • Another major insurer found in its surveys that “more than half of respondents said they ‘always’ or ‘often’ read or send text messages while driving, 43% said they watched cellphone videos always or often while driving, and more than a third said they always or often drove while engaged in a video chat.

The newspaper reported that regulators have sought to crackdown on known distractions in vehicles but with as much success as the legendary monarch who ordered an ocean to stop washing ashore. Infotainment systems and other bells and whistles have become highly profitable for vehicle makers because consumers demand them — and more. Still:

“The National Transportation Safety Board has called for a total ban on in-car device use — excluding built-in infotainment systems — while driving, except in emergencies. At least, the NTSB says, companies should restrict device use by employees. In Europe, automakers will soon be required to install monitors to detect driver distraction in order to receive top safety scores. No such move is being publicly contemplated in the U.S.”

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them and their loved ones by wrecks involving pedestrians, bikes, motorcycles, cars, and trucks. We are all, due to vehicular menaces, one unfortunate step into a busy intersection away from seeing our lives, families, and finances upended with short- and long-term harms. We have great experience and knowledge about how to prevent vehicular nightmares, and we had made progress in reducing the road toll before the numbers took off and the trend lines went in the wrong directions in recent times.

Maybe, as the Los Angeles Times reported, we soon will reach a time when vehicles get smart enough to drive more for us — and to keep us safe while we work or luxuriate in semi- or fully autonomous vehicles. That day is not here yet.

It is unacceptable now to be distracted (by electronic devices, especially for texting, or loud music or conversation), to be drugged (with intoxicants like alcohol or marijuana or prescription medications).

It is unacceptable to speed and to recklessly disregard proven safety measures, including personal restraints, and common-sense conduct behind the wheel while purportedly navigating several tons of metal, glass, and plastic flying down the way. It is unacceptable to be distracted (by electronic devices, especially for texting, or loud music or conversation), to be drugged (with intoxicants like alcohol or marijuana or prescription medications). If you are sleepy, angry, or frustrated, don’t work out your difficulties by driving and putting yourself and others at risk.

We’ve got a lot of work to do to make our streets and highways safer for us all.

Photo credit: Apache Risk and Cost Reduction System CPG cockpit (courtesy of Camber Corporation) as found in 2014 published research study.
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