If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ve probably noticed a quickly emerging trend in new car technologies: park assist, self driving cars, eye level projection screens, etc. This is the first in a series of posts looking at how these new innovations will impact how we drive into the future.
Part One: Driving Distracted
I’ll admit, this video impressed me. Sleek, fast, and confident, it makes an impact. But when we look critically at the core of what distracted driving means, the illusion starts to become a bit more clear.
Let’s start by looking at the logic underlying the new technologies connecting our cars and phones. The current social norm is that people use their phones while driving. Texting has become less acceptable, but we still do it, and talking while driving is still widespread and legal in most states.
Secondly, the way most of us use our phone is by physically looking down at it, thus taking our eyes off the road. Common perception is that the physical distraction of looking down causes the danger of distracted driving. So if we can have a way to use phones without taking our eyes off the road, we can improve driver safety. This is the argument put forth by companies marketing these products. However, many experts in driving safety think that these arguments are based on faulty claims.
All Seeing is Not Created Equal
If you read any popular psychological theories, you will notice the common theme that as humans, we strongly overestimate our cognitive abilities. Our brains make us think that we notice everything that happens in front of us, and that we have a great ability to multitask. However, the reality is in fact opposite; we are poor multitaskers and commonly miss things that happen right before our eyes.
These are the ideas underlying the concept of cognitive distraction, which is essentially how even though our eyes may be physically on the road, if our minds are not focused on driving we will miss things even if they may be in our visual field. Studies have shown (based on the work of Dr. Paul Atchley) that cognitive distraction is just about as dangerous as physical distraction (i.e. looking down).
If this is true, then hands free or screen projection technologies are no safer than normal phone use, as they will lead to equally dangerous distraction. I may take this a bit further and say that they have the potential to be more dangerous, as they give a strong illusion of safety, tricking our minds into thinking we aren’t distracted at all.
We’ve all felt that familiar pull, that undeniable urge to take just one quick look at our phone to see who the text is from, besides I don’t see any other cars on the road and it will be quick and I’m a safe driver anyways so this is ok and it might be important. Yea, we all rationalize it, don’t deny. But why is the urge so strong that we disregard what we know about safety to fulfill it. Some would say because we can’t handle being alone.
Or maybe it’s the fear of missing out, that if I don’t read this text right now some great chance at success will be unfulfilled, an opportunity gone forever. Whatever the reason is, it doesn’t seem rational. There seems to be no good reason for this widely accepted social norm.
So, the question that naturally follows is, why not change it? Public perception does seem to be shifting a bit. Public service ads are pretty much on point with the “it can wait” theme. This is only a partial answer though, because we rationally know it can and should wait, but if we aren’t more intentional about locking the phone away, that urge often gets the best of us. And if we blindly accept the new “safe” technologies and don’t look more critically, we’ll continue to perpetuate the illusion.