Roads, cars safer — but what about drivers?

By Jayson Jacoby August 16, 2013 02:01 pm

The world’s automakers seem bent on making it easier for people to do everything in their cars.

Except drive.

Which seems to me a curious oversight.

Not so bad as forgetting the steering wheel or leaving off the lug nuts, of course, but curious just the same.

The most significant change in the automobile interior over the past decade is the proliferation of devices designed to help drivers communicate with people who are somewhere else.

(Like as not these other people are also driving, possibly in the next lane.)

Carbuilders boast of how “connected” or “wired” their latest models are. I envision Ricardo Montalbán extolling not “rich Corinthian leather” but “rich Bluetooth capability.”

I’m hardly immune to the enticing nature of this technology. I’m enthralled by the notion of someday owning a car that’s a mobile wi-fi hotspot. The concept of hooking up to Skype and having a friend’s or relative’s face show up on a video screen in the middle of the dashboard has a Star Wars flavor to it that makes me wonder whether the era of the long-awaited flying car is impending.

Except it’s dangerous enough to have people carrying on conversations, or Googling “road rage,” while they’re rolling along at 65 mph.

We don’t want them sharing airspace with 747s.

“Hold on, tower control, I can’t land until this YouTube video is over. You won’t believe how cute these kittens are!”

Carmakers, of course, tout their latest options as “hands-free,” which enables people to update their Facebook profile without taking their hands off the wheel.

This sounds like progress.

Except a study commissioned by AAA concluded that that’s not necessarily true.

In fact, researchers found that in some cases using a hands-free device to have a conversation or send an email can distract a driver more than holding a phone and talking into it.

This level of distraction has been compared — and this is the scary part — with driving while intoxicated.

Funny, though, you don’t see automakers installing beer taps — not even ones with a Camelbak-like tube that juts out of the headrest so you can guzzle brew hands-free.

Cars aren’t always in motion, of course.

And I’m not a bit troubled by a person sitting in a parked car, texting or tweeting or whatever.

Except this technology doesn’t turn off when the engine is turned on. And you needn’t be an expert on human behavior to know that if you can do something while driving, you will.

(McDonald’s probably wouldn’t exist otherwise.)

It would be a great pity, it seems to me, if our highways, which have been getting safer for the past few decades, turned more dangerous even as our cars are better able to protect us in a crash.

In 2011, a total of 32,367 people were killed in traffic crashes on U.S. roads. That was the fewest deaths in a year since 1949.

Even more impressive than the raw numbers is the fatality rate, since the latter takes into account the vast increase in the number of cars and the miles traveled.

The most-used measure is the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

The rate in 1949 was 7.13 deaths.

In 2011 it was 1.10.

This nearly miraculous improvement is due in large part to cars being vastly safer. In 1949 life-savers such as anti-lock brakes, airbags and crumple zones were more in the realm of fantasy than assembly line fact.

Back then carbuilders designed parts to look neat, and never mind that the stylish steering wheel hub, in any crash over 20 mph, would skewer you as efficiently as one of Vlad the Impaler’s stakes.

Today the engineers, having taken auto safety about as far as physics allows (roadside oak trees being rarely equipped with air bags) are turning their prodigious abilities to matters of convenience and utility.

This isn’t necessarily a disaster, of course.

I like mp3 jacks and USB ports as much as the next driver.

But I also cling to the quaint notion that piloting a vehicle with competence and single-minded focus is not merely the driver’s most important task.

It’s his only one.

Facebook can wait.

The little kid who just chased his wayward rubber ball into the street can’t.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.