Sunday, June 10, 2012

Danger behind the wheel

I saw a little part of a piece on the news the other morning where the Transportation secretary was again talking about how people think they can drive safely while texting or using a device but they can't.

I'd argue that people cannot drive safely. Period.

Allow me to elaborate.

The combination of things that one must do simultaneously while driving is more than the human mind can realistically process, but we have learned to fake it well enough. Texting or looking at a device or talking on a phone certainly exacerbate how unsafe the activity is, but even without that it's possible that a motorist can be distracted by some outlandish thing a shock jock does on the morning radio, or by reaching for a cup of coffee, or simply be lost in thinking about some report to be given to the boss at work.

It doesn't require a device. I know. In my younger days I got into a tiny not-even-fender-bender in a parking lot, merely backing out of a space. Another car was backing out of the space directly across at the same time, and I didn't notice him (and he didn't notice me at first). Even without a phone or a beverage or some personal issue to distract me, I had the radio on too loud and was in so much of a hurry that I was putting on my seat belt while backing out. It’s not that I didn't glance either way before putting it in gear, but clearly I didn't notice behind me, and then because of the radio I didn't hear him honk when he finally noticed me (although as far out from his space as he was he couldn't have noticed me at first either). Ultimately the only thing that happened was his bumper cracked my taillight, and we looked at the "damage" and easily decided it wasn't worth worrying about.

Obviously I got off easy with that incident, but I think it's probably as much dumb luck as any skill on my part that that was the worst "accident" I ever caused. I'd consider myself a decent driver (but only by relative standards), and I'm much better now than I was when I was younger, but I would never say I'm a great driver. It boils down to this: I comply with the laws against device-usage not because I'm a stickler for rules but because I look at that how a simple moment of not paying attention could have been much worse and I dare not delude myself that somehow I could include reading a message and be any luckier.

Driving with rapt attention on the activity alone is already multi-tasking, between operating the pedals and the steering wheel along with paying attention to what's going on in all four directions constantly; we gain what we perceive as skill in doing all that and, perhaps amazingly, more of than not can tack talking or listening to the radio or drinking a coffee/soda, etc., but each time we get to our destination without smashing into a vehicle or pedestrian is a minor miracle, not evidence that we really know what we're doing behind the wheel.

That most drivers may not also feel that way is why I take modest comfort in riding public transportation to and from work. I'm not smug; I'm scared (both of others and a little bit of myself)—even at my best I am never even in the ballpark with perfect. Neither is anyone else. Yes, we're going to continue faking it (me included), but that most of the other people aren't harboring that perspective...

Let's just put it this way: I thank God every night my wife gets home after her commute in one piece.

1 comment:

  1. I think there's a lot they're not telling you about the Transportation Secretary's bizarre behavior. Then again, "seizure" would describe a lot of this administration's behavior.

    I look forward to the day when all cars have autopilots. Then, mechanical mayhem only ensues when there's a mass network outage.


So, what do you think?