Highway Fatalities Rise Sharply – Smart Phone and Auto Technology to Blame?
Distracted driving and its link to traffic accidents, personal injuries and fatalities has been in the news for more than half a decade. I have made it a public awareness goal of mine to talk about the dangers and to advocate for safe driving practices. The number of highway deaths had been in steady decline and we seemed to be successful in educating people about the dangers of using smart phones while driving. But, according to this new report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in the first six months of 2016 the number of highway deaths increased 10.4 percent, for a total of 17,775 deaths, compared to the same time period in 2015, with 16,100 reported deaths.
Experts acknowledge that talking on the phone, texting and using phone apps are significant contributors to the rise in highway fatalities. Automotive manufacturers have created a “work-around” by adding more technology to new vehicles—Bluetooth and other technologies, which allow us to use our phones to their full capabilities. Dashboards now come equipped with much of that same technology and allow smart phones to be synced to vehicles’ computer systems. People in older cars can easily use gadgets to mount their phones within eyesight or use Bluetooth devices to keep using devices “hands free”.
Despite the many advances, the “hands-free” approach may not be working. A recent article in the New York Times cites stories of people involved in fatal car crashes using their apps while driving. For example, Snapchat has a feature that allows users to post the speed of the car they are driving. Two separate incidents, from teens using this Snapchat feature, showed reports of cars in excess of 100 mph right before a crash.
Other drivers talk about how useful the onscreen apps are and how much easier it is to listen to music, dictate texts, or talk while driving. They seem to feel safer since their hands are on the wheel. “Automakers say these systems enable customers to concentrate on driving even while interacting with their smartphones. The whole principle is to bring voice recognition to customers so they can keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel,” said Alan Hall, a spokesman for Ford, which began installing Sync in cars in 2007.” (NYTmes.com, 11/15/16)
I question, however, how we can truly concentrate on the road and compose a text while navigating rush hour traffic or driving 75 miles per hour on an interstate highway. Add to the latter scenarios driving with a group of teen’s videoing and posting on Snapchat. These are recipes for disaster.
Here are some new features automakers are offering, as reported by the New York Times:
Ford Motor has its own system, Sync. Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz, and others offer their own interfaces as well as Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto. CarPlay allows one to use the iPhone’s Siri to answer phone calls, dictate texts and control apps like Spotify and Pandora. Both Sync and CarPlay present simplified menus on the car’s in-dash display to reduce driver distraction and turn off the phone’s screen, eliminating the temptation to use the device itself. (NYTmes.com, 11/15/16)
So what we now have are all of the distractions of a smart phone and, in some cases, newer, more novel, wiz-bang in-car technology to further distract us. But I suppose the car manufacturers, and we, feel safer because all of this technology is built into the car. In fact, we have simply added many more visual, manual, and mental distractions to our driving experience. This is not safer. Mental, or cognitive, distractions are similar in effect to driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Most of you have probably been behind a driver who was driving erratically, thinking the driver was drunk, only to learn he was on the phone. Deborah Hersman, president of the nonprofit National Safety Council and a former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, notes that freeing the drivers’ hands does not necessarily clear their heads.
“Insurance companies, which closely track auto accidents, are convinced that the increasing use of electronic devices while driving is the biggest cause of the rise in road fatalities, according to Robert Gordon, a senior vice president of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. ‘This is a serious public safety concern for the nation,’ Mr. Gordon said at a recent conference in Washington held by the National Transportation Safety Board. ‘We are all trying to figure out to what extent this is the new normal.’” (NYTmes.com, 11/15/16)
Our evolving, sophisticated technology only encourages us to want more and reinforces that idea that we have to stay in touch with the world even while driving. We are a nation of multi-taskers. The longer we do this while driving we effectively engage in a game of Russian Roulette.
The only truly distraction-free driving is when we put our smart phones out of reach keep our hands, eyes, and minds focused on the road and getting from point A to point B safely. By doing so we are looking out for ourselves, our passengers, and other motorists. Socializing, working or entertaining ourselves while operating a three or four thousand pound missile traveling 55 miles per hour should not be a priority.