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Blue Dog Diaries: Asleep at the wheel

By Terry Roorda

BlueDogDiaries

Let’s try a little experiment. Take a look at your wristwatch, or if you don’t have a wristwatch, take a look at the clock-face function on your smartphone (we know you have one of those) and make note of the sweeping second hand. Now, when I say, “Go, ” determine precisely when 12 seconds have elapsed. But while you’re making that determination simultaneously continue to read this column. Go!

The reason we’re using the 12-second figure is because that’s the length of time that under guidelines suggested in the last year by the NHTSA as the maximum duration you should take your eyes off the road for the purpose of performing functions on a touchscreen device in your automobile—while, incidentally, having traveled the length of four football fields blind at highway speed.

And if you’re a normally competent human being the result of our little trial here is that you either nailed the elapse of that 12 seconds right on the dot or you registered a reasonable comprehension of what you just read. But not both; because you can’t do both, and the reason is that the human brain is incapable of effectively multi-tasking. It can’t be done, and study upon study has demonstrated that the brain can focus on just one task at a time—though it can also switch tasks at an incredibly quick speed. Even so, humans can no more focus on two tasks simultaneously than they can focus their eyes in two directions independently like a chameleon. Recent studies have concluded, in fact, that efforts to multi-task not only significantly lower productivity and shorten attention spans, but can actually slow down your ability to switch tasks and can even reduce your IQ over time.

It was that unavoidable and unsettling phenomenon which has been at the heart of the all-out campaign by vehicle manufacturers, electronic device producers, and the telecommunications industry to convince the public that electronic gadgetry and wizardry in the driver’s cockpit are not just safe and convenient but absolutely necessary to keep you professionally, socially, and technologically relevant—and even spatially oriented—in these hyper-connected times.

It was only after a dizzying array of touchscreen options had already become the latest, greatest and most ubiquitous innovation in contemporary motor vehicles that anyone paused to assess what impact the behaviors associated with their use would have on the increasingly rampant problem of distracted driving—a phenomenon that accounts for an annual death toll approaching 4,000, with a hundred times that many being injured by our blind obsession with distracted driving practices.

When the study was actually conducted last year, the upshot was that a driver futzing with the touchscreen, whether dithering with the sound system, tweaking the GPS, tapping in a phone number or updating a Facebook profile, made the driver three times more likely to be involved in a collision.

And so it was that even the NHTSA had to sit up and take notice. Their belated response was to issue the aforementioned (and entirely voluntary) recommendations to the vehicle makers for time limits on the use of the devices—while once again blithely ignoring the underlying cause, that of the brain’s inability to multi-task. While ostensibly the safety watchdog of the American motoring public, they have shown themselves once again to be the lapdog of the powerful industries promoting the fallacy of the totally-connected and wired-in driver.

Continuing to propagate the canard that distracted driving is actually just a problem of taking your hands off the wheel and your eyes off the road, the vehicle manufacturers turned to what they believed would be the solution to the unfolding catastrophe: they developed and implemented voice activation as the means of controlling the gadgetry. It sounded good, even though it wasn’t a sound response, and once again they charged forward with the technology before any adequate study had been performed on the real-world viability of the approach.

But now, as of a week ago, the results are in on that front—and they’re totally depressing.

According to the study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the University of Utah, hands-free, voice-based interface of driver and techno-device is not just no safer than touchscreen applications, they can be less so. That surprising upshot is due in large part, we’re told, to the relatively primitive state of voice recognition technology and the frustrations that result when the system misinterprets your commands. A number of currently available voice-control systems were evaluated and while some were better than others, none were very good (and the testing of Apple’s Siri proved the worst by a good measure.) Optimistically, the interpreters of the dismal results claimed that it could turn out to be a simple matter of improving the aforesaid voice recognition capabilities, again ignoring the root cause of the distraction hazard—multi-tasking—though AAA CEO Darbelnet was not so breezy about it, saying, “We already know that drivers can miss stop signs, pedestrians and other cars while using voice technologies because their minds are not fully focused on the road. We now understand that current shortcomings in these products, intended as safety features, may unintentionally cause greater levels of cognitive distraction.”

So there’s that, and it’s a pretty dire observation, but the most unvarnished indictment of the testing has come from Deborah Hersman, president of the National Safety Council and previously the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board who stated bluntly, “Infotainment systems are unregulated. It is like the Wild West, where the most critical feature in the vehicle—the driver—is being treated like a guinea pig in human trials with new technologies.”

It’s all right here in the diaries.

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