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Monday, June 05, 2006

A new definition

I saw this and just thought that this would be an interesting article. I found this at Wired News.
As if we do not have enough distractions on the road, do we need any more?

John Coyne, the venerable, 82-year-old mayor of Brooklyn, Ohio, is primed to lay down the traffic law again. And again, modern technology is the reason.

As soon as General Motors puts its Web vehicle on the streets -- expected next year -- Coyne may do something about it. GM announced this week it will soon begin tests of a car with Internet access, and Coyne isn't happy about it.

Why? He's seen people do a lot of stupid things in automobiles.

In 1966, Coyne watched out the window of his office as a mother drove by, her toddler standing in the passenger seat, hands on the dashboard. Seconds later, mom slammed on the brakes to avoid a collision, and the baby's head smacked against the windshield.

"I ran downstairs and the little girl's nose was bleeding like a hog and the mother was hysterical," said Coyne. "I looked at the seatbelt hanging there unused, and I thought, 'By God, there ought to be a law.'"

So he made one, the first seatbelt law in the country.

Some 30 years later, another car plowed into an elderly woman at the same intersection. This time, the driver was yapping on a cell phone, distracted. He kept talking even after the accident.
Coyne, still mayor, went into action again: No talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving in Brooklyn, Ohio. Passed just last March by the City Council, it's the first law of its kind in the country. Coyne fully expects it will soon become the national norm.

"We're not banning them. If it's an emergency, fine. But if you're gonna gab on a cell phone, you should pull over to the side of the road," he said.

Hello, Netmobile.

Coyne insists that drivers' attention be kept from wandering into email or stock quotes or the Pamela Lee fan page when it should be on the road.

"Mark the date and the time; there's going to be a law," he said. "Auto collisions are the leading cause of death in this great country of ours, and I'm saying, 'Wake up!'

"We're the dumbest country in the world when it comes to auto safety. We get carried away with technology, and we don't think about the consequences."

Is Coyne just an aging technophobe? Perhaps not, said experts.

"It's hard to know until the products are introduced," said Ginger Watson, a research scientist at the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa. "But as humans, we're only good at doing a certain number of tasks at a time. Sometimes driving is the only task we can attend to -- it requires full attention."

When you add the Net to the ringing cell phone, screaming kid, and a cassette that needs changing, you've got a car filled with distractions.

GM officials couldn't be reached for comment, but they've previously said that GM's car-based Internet access will be voice-activated, and an electronic voice will read Web site text and email to the driver. Hands can remain on the wheel and eyes on the road.

That might not matter, said Don Redelmeier, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, who in 1997 published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that found driving while using a cell phone increases the odds of crashing four-fold -- nearly as much as driving drunk.

One of the study's other key findings: The distraction of talking on a cell phone is nearly as dangerous as fumbling with the phone when dialing or trying to handle the steering wheel.
"Hands-free cell phones were still associated with a large increase [in accidents]," said Redelmeier. "It's about keeping your mind on the road, not just keeping your hands on the steering wheel."

Trying to craft that email to an important client, even hands-free, might pose a similar hazard to concentration.

Ford, which is also designing a Net-connected car, said it's looking carefully at the risks of overtaxing the driver's attention with techno-gizmos.

"It's a big concern," said John Harmon, Ford's public affairs manager for technology. "There's a whole group that's looking into information overload and the distractedness of drivers."
Harmon declined to offer details of the pending Ford Net car, though he did say what it would not be. "In Japan, they've got a lot of televisions and entertainment systems that the driver can see. That's not what we're doing."

Whatever Ford is doing -- and GM and DaimlerChrysler -- it's likely that the real safety ramifications won't be known for years.

The University of Iowa and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration are developing a sophisticated driving simulator, the National Advanced Driving Simulator, but it won't be complete until the middle of next year. The results of studies there won't be known for months or years after that.

In the interim, statisticians will have to rely solely on accident data to determine the hazards of driving a Netmobile.

"When people started using cell phones, no one knew it would be a problem," said the University of Iowa's Watson. "Now it's recognized as a problem, because the accident statistics are speaking for themselves. It's far better to look at it in an experimental setting in advance than it is to look at crash data."

Watson is quick to point out, though, that new technology may actually reduce accidents.
"By understanding how humans interact with technology, it's possible to improve safety," she said.

A passenger checking the Net for directions, or weather and road conditions, could be a real safety asset, for instance.

For its part, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"There are all kinds of ways to get distracted in a vehicle," said spokesman Tim Hurd.
"When radios first came in cars in the '30s, people worried about them," he said. "By definition, each new thing is a possible distraction, but they don't have to be if they're used responsibly."

Or if they're made illegal, said Mayor Coyne.

"My concern is, with all the safety people we have in this world, we still walk around with blinders on. I'm not a doctor or a lawyer, but I can still do something to help. How can we stand by and let people get killed? I don't understand it."

People should be keeping their attention on the road. Anything else is completely unnecessary.


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