Dumb Drivers Need Smart Cars

Last Friday, our sovereign state made it illegal to text while driving. Despite a lot of public discussion of the subject, our lawmakers did not deal with conversing (by phone or in person), eating, drinking (other than alcohol), personal grooming, smoking, or reading while driving. The AAA says that “distracted driving” (which covers all of these issues and then some) causes between 4,000 and 8,000 car crashes per day, and that roughly half of all car crashes are caused by distracted driving. The NHTSA says distracted driving kills roughly 6,000 people a year. (That’s twice the number of people who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11.)

Illinois is far from the only state paying legislative attention to this issue. There are roughly 200 bills pending in various jurisdictions. In addition, many major employers have no-texting rules for their employees who drive on company business. Being a member of the last generation to grow up without cell phones, I can’t see anything remarkable about this surge of anti-texting, except that it doesn’t cover other forms of vehicular multitasking. But apparently there are people out there who have to take serious efforts to admit their powerlessness over texting on the road, and to curb their insatiable need to do it (usually by keeping their cell phones in some place inaccessible to the driver’s seat.)

I can kind of understand eating and drinking while driving (i.e., I do it myself sometimes.) I have occasionally talked on my cell phone while on the road, though I now don’t do it except in traffic jams where what I am doing doesn’t really count as driving, since the car isn’t in motion. Even that is probably a bad idea, and I intend to cut it out this year.

But texting? If you can write something down, isn’t that proof positive that it isn’t urgent, and can wait till you have a chance to email? And reading? Oy.

There are three conflicting technological presumptions going on here, at least among the younger generations. One is that any task can be multitasked, that any time spent doing only one thing is “down time,” or even wasted time. Another is that one must be in constant communication with one’s friends, clients, and colleagues at all times, whether or not one is face to face with them. And the third is that Real People get from point A to point B by driving whenever possible. Anybody who uses any other mode of transportation is just not serious about time management.

Even back when gas cost four dollars a gallon, most of us kept on driving pretty much the same amount. The very young might have taken up the bicycle, and the somewhat older might have opted for public transportation more often (especially when, as in Chicago, it is free for seniors.) But the rest of us just keep looking down that long lonesome road. Apparently we also try to make it less lonesome by reaching out and touching people on the way. Or we insist on doing business from the highway.

Something has to give. We’ve already fiddled around with trying to get people out of their cars, or off of their cell phones. But now that we’ve built an entire culture that depends on both cars and cells, backtracking is not really workable. So why don’t we get realistic? We’re already working on various fuel-efficient cars, which require rethinking the internal combustion engine and the petroleum fuel supply network. While we’re at it, why don’t we build smart cars, cars that can be driven (if that’s the right word) by people who either have to devote their attention elsewhere, or are too old, too young, or too disabled to drive properly?

To keep the American driving public happy, such a vehicle would still have to be solidly built, individually owned, and individually controlled as to choice of destination. Ideally, the “driver” would simply program in a destination and leave the actual driving to the computer, while tending to her children, her manicure, his sports page, their lunch, or their texting. Or even taking a much-needed nap. It would be the cyber-equivalent of a chauffeur.

While the introduction of the first generation would be pretty pricey, long-term savings could be substantial. A “smart” car could be programmed to drive around the block with no driver at all, rather than have to be parked (now that parking has become so expensive.) It could be set up as a mobile office, with all the associated tax advantages, so that the “driver” need not waste a minute of waking time. “Smart” trucks could even be “driven” by people who could sleep their regulation 8 hours while on the road.

Computer glitches could easily result in moving violations, of course. But on the other hand, DUI need no longer be an issue, as long as a designated non-drinker programs in the destination. The productivity of working adults could be increased enormously, nce parents no longer have to spend their afternoons chauffeuring their children from one activity to another and people with elderly relatives do not have to drive them to the doctor. The “smart” car could be set up with “parental controls” to keep teenagers from driving like—well, like teenagers.

We already have much of the technology needed to make this happen, and the rest of it is certainly within our capability. As long as the US government owns General Motors, why not take advantage of the crisis? Drivers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your responsibility, and you’re already giving up on that.


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