How Can We Design Cars to Reduce Distracted Driving?

©. Foxy Burrow/ Shutterstock -- no distractions here.

We have done many posts this year about what has seemed to be the big issue of 2016, distracted walking. It gets almost as much attention as distracted driving, which is actually a serious issue because the people doing it are often inside a few thousand pounds of dangerous vehicle. Just yesterday, B, our former tech wizard who really built the TreeHugger you are reading, got rear-ended by a woman who was fiddling with her radio.

We have written before about driver distraction, wondering why people complain about pedestrians with headphones when they drive around with windows rolled up and radios so loud that the ground is shaking, or dashboards with bigger screens (and more of them) than most offices, (like the Tesla showed above) so I wondered, how big a deal is playing with the radio or looking at instruments?

What I found was really interesting, and not what I expected. See the chart in Insurance Journal. Playing with the radio is not actually a big deal. Texting and talking on the phone was a bigger deal at 12 percent, (and the data are from 2010 and 2011 so it has probably got worse since then). Rubbernecking or looking outside caused a big 7 percent (that is what I am guilty of, being an architect I am always looking at every building and streetscape, my wife now does all the driving when we are together) But the worst in this study by far is just generally being “lost in thought” and not paying serious attention, responsible for 62 percent. According to another study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a whopping “84% of distracted-driving-related fatalities in the US were tied to the general classification of carelessness or inattentiveness”.

Unlike pedestrians and cyclists, drivers have the benefit of all that steel around them, and fifty years of improvements in safety from seat belts to airbags to crush zones; the rate of death among people in cars has been dropping consistently. But the rate of death and injury among the people they hit has been going up. If we were serious about fixing this there are a few things that could be done.

Because really, if drivers are going to complain that pedestrians are not paying attention, we have to recognize that between 62 and 84 percent of drivers are not paying attention. What’s good for the goose:
Simplify and standardize or even eliminate entertainment systems. This is not your living room, it is transportation. They should be consistent and as intuitive as shifting gears, where pretty much the same PRN pattern is used by everyone, and we have seen what happens when manufacturers mess with it.

For that matter, stop designing cars like moving living rooms and design them more like machines, with harder seats to keep you alert, less insulation to keep out exterior noise, and perhaps even standard transmissions that require a lot more attention. When I am in my 89 Miata, crunching those gears and looking under transport trucks, with my bum a foot off the ground and no airbags, I am seriously concentrating on the road.

Fix cellphones so that they don’t work at all in the car. In the UK, the government is discussing this right now, according to the Guardian.

Ministers and officials will tell mobile companies that “drive safe” modes, similar to the airplane mode that has become standard, must be included in basic software ahead of a broader crackdown on illegal mobile phone use on the roads. Drive safe mode differs from a flight safe mode because it can potentially let the driver make emergency calls or accept calls from certain designated persons. There is also the possibility of automatically blocking the phone using GPS technology if certain speeds are reached.

Of course, none of this is likely to happen. But the shocking statistics on how many people are driving around in a daze, on another planet, should be trotted out every time a driver complains about pedestrians not paying attention or wearing headphones. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.