Amusing Ourselves to Death: Driver Distraction
“Amusing Ourselves to Death” is the visionary title of a book by former NYU Professor and media guru, Neil Postman. Postman was writing about film and TV, not about traffic fatalities. He could not have imagined that “Amusing Ourselves to Death” would be a literal title that described our roadways. It is just beginning.
The road to autonomous cars will have more casualties, as we clamor for entertainment, and demand to travel with smartphones and voice assistants. BMW and Mini are about to introduce the Alexa to automobiles. Cadillac and Audi will sell vehicles with Stage 2 or 3 hands-free driving. In the not so distant future, companies might pay to send in-vehicle ads and promotions to drivers, based on knowledge of the destination. Drivers may welcome this if the ads offset their travel cost, similar to the business model used by over-the-air TV. There is synergy between cars, phones, and messages.
The synergy is easy to understand. Within the closed confines of a car, conversation fills the space. It can seem as natural to talk with someone over the phone, as it feels to chat with the passenger sitting beside us, or in the back seat. Drivers don’t make a distinction between remote conversations and the ones they have with passengers, even though the cognitive processing skills differ. More obviously, they know that passengers react to the road…they pause, they modulate their tone of voice, and sometimes they even cry out, should they observe slowing traffic or dangerous road conditions. Passengers provide both verbal and non-verbal traffic cues, and that makes driving with a passenger safer than speaking with someone remotely, at the other end of the smartphone.
Drivers have a hard time grasping that driving and dialing are conflicting tasks. Hands free /bluetooth communications makes drivers feel safe, since they keep their hands on the wheel. They do not recognize that hands-free is not cognitive free: there is a split second shifting of focus between the conversation and the road. Most of the time, if drivers are experienced with both the road and their phones, simple, basic verbal exchanges (yes/no/when) do not seem to cause accidents. However, this assumption will be tested further as Amazon introduces its Alexa voice assistant into 2018 BMW cars and minis.
It is noteworthy that while the diffusion of Bluetooth devices has increased and new cars have gained many more factory-installed safety features, there has still been an uptick in traffic fatalities. Between 2014 and 2016 there was a 14% increase in traffic deaths. The cause is not clear, but a common attribution is that one in four fatalities is linked to the phone.
We are now moving from an era with hands-on-the-wheel to one where messaging will be more omnipresent. Recall that the first traffic death in an autonomous vehicle occurred when a Tesla driver traveled at high speed, watching a movie. The driver failed to respond, although it was estimated, ex post, that he had 10 seconds to take back the wheel before colliding with a truck that crossed his path.
A new generation of cars, the 2018 Cadillac CT6 sedan, allow the driver to be in semi-autonomous mode, but with eyes on the road. An eye-tracking camera is mounted to the dashboard. A different system from Audi goes one step further and allows the driver to take their eyes off the road if the vehicle is on a divided road with traffic speeds under 40 mph. Audi touts (per the WSJ) the advantages: “drivers can turn their attention to “things like “ answer their email, write text messages.. or plan for their vacation.”
Spoiler: The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) is reviewing the self-driving Audi and has not decided if the car is road-ready.
Whether the Cadillac or the Audi models succeed, drivers continue to sit forward and face the windshield. To escape boredom, these drivers will surely spend more time on their smartphones. Spending more smartphone time will also justify their productivity; they can take the office with them as they travel.
In the short run, smartphones will rule. We should not expect strong legislation and public education, like the kind that greatly reduced traffic fatalities from drinking and driving. Policy makers, perhaps early adopters themselves, will be reluctant to regulate hands-free.
The NTSB may still weigh in, but owners of semi-autonomous cars will be setting a new trend. They will introduce brand new entertainment systems to vehicles, and speed up the frequency and rate of smartphone use. If drivers are more connected and less aware, their remote vehicles will need to be more responsive. Of course, current vehicles are still in beta testing so some drivers will unwittingly amuse themselves to death. Meanwhile, other connected devices like the Alexa, will make driving less tedious but they still lack the eyes and ears of a fellow passenger.