Distracted driving or user error? July 6, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , trackback
I have already noted that the iPad was installed in people’s cars soon after its appearance. Of course, how people are supposed to drive properly while playing with an iPad is hard to imagine. It seems like an act of the highest irresponsibility. That, of course, won’t prevent people from doing it. Each offender will simply tell herself that she is so good at multitasking that nothing bad can happen.
Now there comes news in the New York Times that auto industry lobbyists in Washington are seeking to portray those concerned about the growing distractions in cars as a bunch of Chicken Little types out to stymie innovation in in-car technology.
The goal of this auto industry group is to avert the danger of legislation banning or restricting the use of cell phones, iPads, and what not, while driving a car. Instead, the group proposes that the problem is not the technology but the usage of it.
Babak Zafarnia, a public relations executive hired by Seward to be the coalition’s spokesman, said the idea was to emphasize driver education and to focus on broad driver-distraction laws, rather than focusing on the use of particular technologies.
“You can’t anticipate every possible scenario. Distraction is distraction, period,” he said, adding: “Why don’t we modernize the education curriculum to teach drivers to deal with all in-vehicle distractions?”
In other words, let’s educate drivers to deal appropriately with distractions, without legislating against any particular source of distractions.
The position is somewhat disingenuous. Sure, having another person in the car to talk to can be a distraction. However, a second pair of eyes in the car also forms an addition safety device: The passenger, out of a sense of self-preservation, often provides warnings about potential problems on the road ahead, e.g., “Look out for that car!”
I am also reminded of the history of anti-lock braking systems in cars. As documented in Ann Johnson’s recent book, Hitting the brakes, anti-lock braking systems were originally developed, starting in the 1950s, to make cars safer but without the need to re-train drivers or get them to change their habits. Recent evidence suggests that the hoped-for safety benefits have not materialized. If anything, driving in cars equipped with anti-lock brakes is marginally less safe, for reasons that remain disputed. As Johnson notes, car manufacturers have recently taken the line that drivers need to be re-educated in order to work the brakes properly, so that their safety benefits can be realized. Of course, drivers should be educated in safe driving, but not as a way for car designers to mask their technological failures.
The desire to shift blame onto users is not limited to the auto industry. Lauren Willis has recently argued, for example, that the calls of financial institutions for more “financial literacy education” for the masses seem like attempts by the banks to shift their responsibility for the recent financial crisis onto customers who were so persuasively urged to take on sub-prime mortgages that they could not afford. Of course, there is blame enough to go around. Yet, it seems that the designers and sellers of those unintelligible new financial instruments would prefer not to shoulder their share.
All of this discussion centers on the claim, noted before on this blog, that technology is “just a tool”. One of the implications of this view is that the impacts of a given product are the results of how it is used, not how it is designed. If so, the inference goes, then blame for errors attaches to the users, who determined how they use things, and not the designers (or others). Thus, the auto industry seems to argue, the problem is not that in-car technology seems designed to distract people but that people decide to indulge in distractions. The fix, then, is not to blame the technology but to blame the user and send them in for
However, technology is not just a tool. The design of a piece of technology can have a crucial impact on how it is used, along with users’ preferences and other circumstantial factors. In that case, the designers of a technology have a share in any blame for its failures and, I might add, any credit for its successes. So, what we need is a mature discussion of the pros and cons of technology in cars, and not some bullsh*t dog-and-pony show by industry lobbyists.