The Road to…

Civilization as we know it is doomed (again). And in some ways, that may actually be a good thing. It’s the “as we know it” that’s important here.

Modern civilization is built around the automobile.

Before I go on, does anyone have a serious counter to that statement? No? Write a comment if you think of anything, OK?

The problem is that driving has become so unsafe that it now threatens its own existence.

Consider: I drove Maggie to the BART station this morning. In the course of a thirty minute drive, I saw the following:

  • A high-speed lane change without signaling
  • A change from the left turn lane to the through lane without signaling or looking.
  • The second car in line to make a left turn make the turn before the first car in line–
  • –because the first car was waiting for a pedestrian to clear the crosswalk
  • A car stopped in the traffic lane to let a passenger out–
  • –forcing a second car to cross the yellow line into oncoming traffic–
  • –and then also stop in the traffic lane (still facing the wrong way for the lane it was in) to let a passenger out.

And you know what the most remarkable thing about this trip was? I didn’t see a single case of a car slaloming around multiple vehicles.

That particular maneuver, usually conducted at ten or fifteen mph over the prevailing speed (not the posted speed, the actual speed) has become so common that on any trip of more than a couple of miles, the question isn’t whether it’s going to happen, but how many times.

The universal standard disclaimer about anecdotes not being data certainly applies here. The stretch of freeway I travel is always in the top five “worst commutes” lists. But I see the same behavior everywhere–and let’s not forget that all but one of the stupid, dangerous, and illegal activities I saw were on city streets, not the freeway.

In short, driving is risky. And it’s only going to get worse. Consider this item that showed up on Kickstarter recently: “Pain-Free Sociable Headphones“. Leave aside the question of whether the world actually needs “sociable” headphones (you can broadcast whatever is playing through your headphones to any other set within 100 feet). The two purposes of these headphones are to eliminate the “pressure and…heat” generated by normal headphones so you can wear them longer and to allow “you to interact with your environment while listening to your audio”.

How long after release will it be before somebody decides to wear his “pain free” headphones while driving? My bet is less than an hour.

I’m in no position to complain about people listening to music while they drive; I almost always have the radio on when I’m behind the wheel.

But headphones are a more immersive environment. Even if they’re designed, as these are, to allow environmental noise into your ears, just by virtue of placing your head in the center of the sound stage, they’re going to command more of your attention than speakers.

More attention on the music, less on the traffic means more dangerous behavior.

I’m not suggesting that the crew behind this particular Kickstarter are deliberately setting out to cause traffic accidents. I’m sure they’re not. But I’m also sure that they, like pretty much every other tech company isn’t giving enough attention to the consequences their products will bring.

The near-universal push today is to make it easier for mobile devices to claim more and more of the users’ attention. And I’m not seeing anyone giving much thought to what their attention had been on before.

Self-driving cars? Well… Until fully autonomous cars are universal, it’s not going to help. The evidence suggests that the people who most need their car to take over the driving are going to be the ones least likely to let it. Not when their unsafe behavior is the result of impatience with slower-moving, law-abiding vehicles.

8 thoughts on “The Road to…

  1. Casey, it’s been illegal, for some time, to wear headphones that cover both ears while driving, and now, I’m happy to see, it’s illegal to wear ear buds, too. What pleases me particularly is that the new law applies to both driving and riding bicycles- riding with earbuds being a particular peeve of mine.
    It’s true that laws are made to be broken, but, at least with headphones, it’s pretty easy to spot violators. So, by and large, this seems like it can slip pretty far down your list of things to worry about. As you say, just a good stereo system can be distracting enough.
    Now, if we can just get some enforcement of the “no texting” law, we’ll have a safer environment, out there. Notice the increase in people having to be “honked” back into consciousness when the light changes? I sure have.
    One damn thing or another….

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    • Yes and no. Apparently as long as one ear is uncovered, you’re OK (http://abc7news.com/politics/california-law-regarding-earbuds-goes-into-effect/1143846/). And, given that the earphones in question essentially put an open framework between the pads and the ears, one could argue that both ears are uncovered. I’m sure some lawyer will make a nice paycheck with that argument.

      Regardless, the issue isn’t really the headphones, it’s the manufacturers not considering the consequences of dragging peoples’ attention into their gadgets. Texting, talking, watching videos, etc.

      (I’m less bothered by the ones sitting at the intersection reading texts after the light has changed than I am by the ones who go ahead and make their turn without putting the phone down…)

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  2. Oh man, thank you for griping one of my favorite gripes. When did it become “sucker” behavior to observe the laws that allow people to operate two-ton vehicles without getting killed? Does everyone think life is a video game where you can get a reset?

    I’m not sure it’s the shortsightedness of manufacturers. I mean newspapers have been around for a while, but while people have been spotted reading a newspaper balanced on the steering wheel, it’s rather the exception. I think something has happened to the fundamental concept of personal responsibility — roughly around the time everyone started to think Beavis and Butthead were funny and Bart Simpson was saying “Don’t have a cow, man.” Somehow, and I fault the entertainment media and the push to appeal to 12-year-old boys, a juvenile disregard of other people’s safety and peace of mind became cool.

    I say bring on the self driving cars, which as I remember were depicted back in the 60s in a science-fiction novel by Roger Zelazny. You would get in the car, program in your trip and from the luxury vehicles you could order wine or champagne or what you liked with a colorful “Drink While You Drive” motto on the ice bucket it was delivered in.

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    • Suddenly I feel like I’m preaching to the choir. (I suppose I am–I flatter myself enough to think anyone bright enough to hang around here is smart enough to know better than to multitask while in control of those two-ton deathmobiles.)

      But yes, good point. A contributing factor, at the least.

      But don’t forget about the Google alerts that ring your phone while you’re driving to warn you about the accident you’ve already passed and to tell you it’s time to leave for the appointment you’re already heading toward.

      Newspapers, for all their lingering appeal, are time-limited. Once you’ve read it, you’re done. There are no links to TV Tropes, YouTube, or I Can Has Cheezburger. Maybe you read it on the way to work, but at least your evening commute was paper-free.

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      • What can I say. I only just got a smartphone and I have no interest in knowing what it has to say while I’m driving. I’m the person who might be eating a Power Bar on the road but will simply release my grip on it if traffic looks dicey and let it fall. Everyone has the option of FUCKING WELL IGNORING anything that competes with their attention to the road, the pedals and the steering wheel. Or turning off the phone, cf. Mr. Stevens.

        At other times, of course, we love Cheezburgr.

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      • Ah, clearly the smartphone mind control rays haven’t worked themselves sufficiently far into your hindbrain. Give it time. Soon enough you’ll be checking your phone every five minutes, playing games on it while waiting for the waiter to deliver your food, and calling home to check on the cats while cruising down the freeway.

        Just like the rest of us zombies.

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      • See, that’s how they’ll get you: once you’re properly addicted to your smartphone, you’ll start using it to distract yourself from where you’re driving. “If I’m playing Angry Birds, I won’t care that I’m on the freeway.”

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