Technology: Vigilant or Vanity?

Over the past two decades, we’ve seen technology create shifts in driver safety:

  • cell phones promised to help summon aid when our vehicle broke down, or we needed other emergency assistance away from public call boxes or pay phones
  • cells, on the other hand, led to texting and distracted driving deaths from mis-use (using while driving instead of when stopped in a safe parking spot)
  • GPS navigation promised to speed us to our destination, but sometimes our overconfidence led us to “turn off a cliff” or “turn into the swamp”
  • Now we learn more about the new model year at the Consumer Electronics Show than the traditional “auto show” — technology for surfing the web, updating social media while driving is invading high-end cars

A recent news article in the LA Times (http://www.latimes.com/business/autos/la-fi-hy-auto-safety-20131129,0,5015378,full.story) highlights efforts by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to use technology to reduce traffic fatalities.

“Ninety percent of all crashes have an element of human error,” NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said. “We really need to focus on what more we can do to address these risks.” Automakers for years resisted federal safety initiatives, originally objecting to seat belts, air bags and more recently making backup cameras standard equipment. But for now they are supporting NHTSA’s efforts.

“This is the holy grail,” said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.  Much of the technology already exists. Cars equipped with optional collision warning and automatic braking systems were at nearly every automaker’s display at the Los Angeles Auto Show this week. Vehicles currently chime when a passenger isn’t belted; automakers already know how to link that to the car’s transmission to prevent the car from moving.

Now NHTSA and a coalition of 17 automakers are working on the so-called Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety. The DADDS system uses sensors in the cabin to measure blood-alcohol content by breath or touch to ensure a driver is below the legal 0.08% threshold for impairment.

mvr crash sceneDrunk driving killed more than 10,000 people last year, about a third of traffic deaths. It’s a deadlier issue than distracted driving and one that deserves serious attention for many reasons — many of the deaths are among young drivers and typically two-thirds of the deaths are from passengers in the car — not just the driver.

Still, technology offers a vision of solutions that are not always practical to implement based on current manufacturing capability.  Consider early efforts to make seatbelt use mandatory (thru technology):

Automakers have been down this road before. In the early 1970s, more than 50,000 people a year were dying on U.S. roads. In response, NHTSA mandated a seat-belt monitoring system that launched in the 1974 model year. It prevented vehicles from starting unless the front seat belts were fastened.

The public balked and a cottage industry sprang up to help drivers bypass the system, said Jeremy Anwyl, an automotive industry consultant and former chief executive of Edmunds.com. Then-President Gerald Ford beat a hasty retreat, ordering NHTSA to abandon the requirement for 1975 cars.

ALERT CSAOne new system being proposed is the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety or DADDS system for short.  The idea is simple, using various sensors, the ignition would be interlocked — requiring a driver to have a BAC below threshold in order to start the vehicle.  It sounds great in principle, but what if the car’s sensors malfunction and the vehicle won’t start when it ought to?  What happens if the sensors are somehow fooled and the driver crashes while drunk — is it a product liability issue?

I’m not against any reasonable means to improve traffic safety results — actually I would love to see DADDS in place assuming it’s reliable.  However, I’m very nervous about rushing any technology into place, or obligating users to field test any system that’s not really ready for deployment — they come back bashing safety advocates and create artificial barriers to accepting safety mechanisms that ARE ready for use.

Technology can serve to increase vigilance over safety performance, but it can also fuel our vanity for multi-tasking behind the wheel.  Either way, we need to be careful as a society to balance our desire for fun with our responsibilities to be safe.

What do you think?

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