Sunday, March 27, 2011

Distracted Driving – Is Technology Helping or Hurting Us?

A few years ago, I attended a transportation panel discussion held by Island Press in Washington D.C. The panel was discussing walk-to-school programs and the increased need for safe pathways to schools. A fellow attendee immediately jabbed at the panel demanding the reasoning for such advocacy, stating “Did you know that three children were abducted off D.C. streets last year?” Geoff Anderson, representing Transportation for America, quickly replied, “Do you know how many died in automobile accidents?”

In American roughly 40,000 people die in automobile accidents every year. Technological advances have increased automobile safety with airbags and better designs to minimize harm during impact. So, people take more chances. Aside from the advances, technology has also increased the amount of distraction while behind the wheel. Cellphones, texting, navigation systems all impact driver performance. This year, one of the automobile manufacturers will offer a dashboard infotainment system that allows the driver to flag songs, book a table at a restaurant and link five laptops to its wireless internet hub. Alarming? Yes.

Also alarming are Volvo’s vehicles designed to notify the motorist of pedestrians crossing near the vehicle. It is meant to spot all pedestrians in front of the car as well as off to the sides in a 60 degree angle. The technology will warn the driver with a red flashing light on the windshield if the car is on a collision course with a pedestrian. Do tell? If a motorist is unable to see a pedestrian within 60 degree line of sight from the front of the vehicle, why are automakers assuming that they will see the blinking red light on the dash? And, might I ask, will there be enough time to slow the vehicle and avoid a collision?

One of the comments from SF.StreetsBlog states “I feel that drivers in general are spending about 0% of their time looking for peds & bikes.” If the concern for pedestrians is completely removed from motorists, the new device may wipe all worries away allowing motorists to rely solely on technology to veer away from pedestrians in harm’s way. Maybe someone should invent a portable device for pedestrians that tests whether motorists are actually paying attention at the wheel?