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.