The 21st century has been evolving the car way far beyond its basic original mission as a means for individual transportation. Drivers of all ages and genders are expecting the car to become moving terminals which extend the capabilities of their laptops, their smartphones and their tablets. It´s just the level of addiction to these technologies that fluctuates depending on where and who is using it: younger people, as always, proving to be much more tech avid than older drivers.

But where the conflict of interests really becomes a public social concern is regarding obvious safety issues. Every day some 3300 people die somewhere in this Planet as a consequence of road accidents (World Health Organization, 2017) and most of those accidents would not occur if human attention was at the highest possible level. Yes, women claim to be able to multitask but the sad truth is that even they will dedicate a smaller portion of their attention to driving if they are texting a message, talking on the cell phone, accessing a webpage to check for the next available grocery store or simply adjusting the stereo or the climate control.

One certainly wonders what will be the impact of the driver assistance systems as they become more common in every car average car as a means to protect us... from ourselves. That is, in fact, the task entrusted to lane departure warning and active intervention, object approaching ahead passive or active systems, and all the host of technologies that are enabling cars to take over one of the missions which should belong to humans: looking around, being attentive at all times.

Also because the global 1,25 million deaths on the road (that is 2015, but a number that has plateaued since 2007) that WHO wants to halve by 2020 will probably be more resilient as 9 out of 10 of the world´s fatalities on the roads occur in low and middle income countries (even though these countries only have approximately 54% of the world´s vehicles) where driving assistance systems will still be the exception rather than the rule by then.

Several studies have raised some eyebrows about the consequences of driver´s behavior both in the USA and Europe and have led legislators to come up with more serious attempts to defend man from himself while driving and communicating. One study found that 69% of drivers in the United States of America had used their mobile phone while driving within the previous 30 days – a percentage higher than in Europe, where it ranged from 21% in the United Kingdom to 59% in Portugal. An overview of available crash data suggests that drivers talking on a mobile phone are approximately four times more likely to be involved in a crash than those who are not.

Younger people tend to be more dependent on technology and that is a big concern as 9% of all drivers 15 to 19 years old involved in fatal crashes in the US were reported as distracted at the time of the crashes (the age group with the largest proportion of driv¬ers distracted at the time of the fatal crashes). On the other hand, road accidents are globally by far the number one cause of death among people aged 15 to 29.

In the USA these studies are more advanced than in most countries and the conclusions of what happens there are quite obvious and hardly surprising: more people are driving while distracted when they are involved in fatal crashes. In the US, the percentage of fatalities associated with distracted drivers increased from 10% in 2005 to 16% in 2009. In 2015, 3477 people were killed in the U.S. because of accidents that involved distracted drivers and 14% of all police-reported motor vehicle crashes were caused by distracted drivers.

The risk of crashing while texting driving increases by 23 times, because reading or sending a text diverts the driver's eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds -- the time frame you need to drive the length of a football field, in this case blind, at 90 km/h. And in Europe it doesn't get any better: according to the UK Department of Transport, 324 or 20% of fatal road accidents in 2010 in the country had impairment of driving ability or distraction as the likely cause.

An experiment conducted by a former US Car & Driver magazine editor Eddie Alterman (at a deserted airfield strip) showed that texting while driving had a greater impact on safety than driving drunk. While legally drunk, Alterman's stopping distance from 110 km/h increased by 1,2 meters; by contrast, reading an e-mail added 11 meters, and sending a text required an extra 21,3 meters to perform the same task.

His master´s voice

Every new illegally and potentially harming human behavior takes its time to be regulated and the surging distractions during car driving are no different. One of the problems we are facing now has to do with diversity in laws: in America talking on a hand-held cellphone is only banned in 15 states, meaning that in 35 other states you are fine to do so (even text messaging is allowed in three states). In Europe there is more consistency and nowhere are you allowed to use (i.e. voice call or text) your cell phone while operating a motor vehicle.

But even if all the roads in all the countries banned cellphone hand-held use the state of affairs would not improve dramatically as all studies point out that hands-free phones appear to have no significant advantage over handheld phones – most likely because the most dangerous type of distraction (cognitive) applies equally to both.

As the car becomes more connected the number of on-board distractions will keep on increasing. But if regulators restrict the connected car too much, some drivers will simply use their smartphones directly to stay connected - whether or not it's illegal. Unless smart phones were factory programmed to divert calls to an answering machine while driving above 10 km/h) (and this would only solve one of the many sources of distracted driving).

Static or "near-static" displays have been considered but on a navigation system they would be of little practical value. The elimination of any text information sent to the driver which implies reading more than 30 characters of visually presented text has also been suggested, but a standard satellite radio display of a station (very common in the US) show and song title can easily exceed 30 characters.

As we inaugurate a new year, all these figures and considerations should make you think twice – without being distracted – next time you willingly accept to risk your life, the lives of other road users and those of your own passengers (children, family or friends). Because although each of us tends to think that these sort of things only happen to others, in the same way a human driver can be generally described as having one head, two arms and two legs, the painful truth is that all our brains work pretty much in the same way.

Joaquim Oliveira

Joaquim Oliveira

European Car of the Year Jury Member

Dec. 30, 2017 Columns › Joaquim Oliveira photo: Joaquim Oliviera

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