We’re led to believe that progress is a good thing, by which people really mean change and innovation. And let’s be honest, who could be against change and innovation?
Today I want to argue that in some cases it isn’t. In fact it’s not an argument, it’s just a fact. And a scandal. Recent innovations to the modern car embraced as wonderful by automotive journalists and customers alike are killing people, and could kill so many that in any other circumstance the government would call in the army.
I do not exaggerate for affect. People are dying and they are going to die in greater numbers. It’s a scandal which nobody will recognise, partly because the hugely powerful car lobby wants it ignored, and partly because we are still hung up on the word “accident” when discussing road deaths. Often there’s nothing accidental about it; it just wasn’t deliberate. It’s not the same thing.
To explain: drink driving probably hit its zenith in the 1970s when it was regarded as perfectly normal to sink six pints in the pub and drive home. Over the years the death toll became too much and finally governments acted and social values subsequently changed to make it less and less acceptable. And rightly so. Getting in to two tons of metal capable of doing 140mph in a state of vastly reduced reaction times and ability to judge speed and distance is clearly exceptionally stupid, and selfish. So they pretty much did for that.
Then we got mobile phones. Again hundreds died before finally the government made driving and phoning illegal. Unfortunately we are only in the early stages of enforcing that and, unlike the push against drink driving 30 years ago, we’ve now replaced all the traffic cops with speed cameras so people know the chances of getting caught are microscopic and generally simply ignore the rule (how many do you see doing it every day?).
Then came in-car computers. I had a 7 Series BMW once for a week which had the company’s “i-drive” system in which, to operate anything from the radio to the air conditioning, I was required to fiddle with a little wheel by my left hip whilst juggling endless menus on a tiny screen on the dash two feet away. It was nothing short of deadly.
Now of course these little screens can also be used to adjust the ride height, suspension settings, engine mapping, climate control, colour of the interior lights and dozens more things too.
And of course the phone is now linked to the little screen too, so we can scroll along until we find Phil’s office number, not looking ahead, and then have a long chat with him as we bomb along the M4 at 90mph.
And all of this has to fit around the sat-nav too. The joyful sat-nav; another tool designed to allow us to think even less about where we’re going. Just look at the (other) little screen and listen for the voice to tell us where to go and when. Great! Brain off, put some tunes on.
On top of this menagerie of distraction we then got texting; now estimated to be responsible for more road deaths amongst 17-24 year olds in the US than drink driving. Recognising that this was astronomically dangerous, systems have now been developed to allow people (who can afford a flash new car) to send and receive texts using voice-recognition software in the car, via…yes…a little screen.
And finally, in to this potentially fatal mix, we must now add in car wi-fi. That’s right folks, your high speed front room is now complete with almost all manufacturers in 2014 offering high-speed wi-fi as an option. Now you can Tweet, Facebook and email on the move too. Most mid and top end car makers now offer this as an option, including full 4G connectivity.
Of course safety rather than profit is the manufacturers’ key concern (ahem), which is why these systems are voice operated. The problem is, this is so much shit. Every single available piece of data shows that voice-operated software in a car is a huge distraction.
Ian Spence, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, revealed last year in his paper “How Speech Modifies Visual Attention”, published in the respected journal Applied Cognitive Psychology: “Many people assume that talking to a voice-operated device will be as safe as using a hands-free cell phone, but neither activity is safe.”
Spence and his team tested the ability of volunteers to pay attention to a visual task and perform it correctly in the presence of other potential distractions such as listening to a car radio, answering simple yes/no questions from a researcher, or playing word games. Subjects responded more slowly to the visual task no matter what the distraction was, and responded much more slowly as the complexity of the distraction rose.
Listening to the radio didn’t slow responses nearly as much as word games or other distractions that required actual thought from the user – the kind of thought needed to type or speak URLs, or search terms to a WiFi connected in-car device, for example. Even refusing to respond verbally didn’t distract test subjects any less or improve their performance on visual tests. “It did not matter whether the subject spoke the answer aloud or simply thought about the answer,” Spence said in an announcement about the research. “It was the thinking, not speaking, that caused them to slow down.”
And that’s the point. These myriad devices can be made to apear “safe” in terms of being “non-visually” operated but the result is much the same – the driver isn’t thinking about what should be top of his or her agenda…not crashing.
The British weekly newspaper Motorcycle News (MCN) accompanied the police in London on an operation to catch drivers texting or calling on phones recently. Every time they pulled one in to the stop another seven or eight would drive by. There were simply not enough cops to cope with the sheer number of people doing it.
As one exasperated traffic cop told MCN afterwards: “You have to wonder, given all the things going on inside a car these days, just where driving fits in to the list.”
The final nail in the complacency coffin, the icing on the collision cake, where modern cars are concerned is safety. Whilst the driver’s conscious ability is dramatically reduced by all these distractions and toys, his or her sub-conscious reason to worry about that is also reduced by the safety cages, airbags, auto-braking, radar, crumple zones and a dozen other safety features. He or she feels fine, cosseted. When I drove my 1970 Triumph TR6 I had to concentrate on what I was doing: it was loud, harsh and little stronger in a collision than a bean can, and I knew it. It focusses the mind.
Car makers are filling vehicles with more and more safety equipment not on the basis that this makes matters safer for the rest of us – folk in cheaper cars without all these benefits, pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists – but because it makes it safer for the driver inside, who is actually becoming more dangerous to those around him with every new distraction.
If this keeps up you’d better hope you can afford a £120,000 Mercedes S-Class if you want to stay safe. It’s an arms race out there people, and we’re the poor bloody infantry.
*Details of Ian Spence’s research reported in this blog were taken from the excellent article by Kevin Fogarty on vice.com