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Distracted Driving: When Do Gadgets Go Too Far?

The ad is cute, even really clever. Boy meets girl, they go on a date, they kiss, she goes inside leaving him with a look on his face that reads, “Awesome. That was awesome, right? Yes, awesome. I mean, I thought so – did she?”

Then he gets in his car, pulls out into traffic, and hits a button on the rear-view mirror. A computerized voice starts reading out his Facebook updates, including one from the girl: “Best. First. Date. Ever.” He smiles, we all sigh knowingly from our couches.

As ads go, it’s a pretty good one, which explains why it debuted during the Super Bowl. I missed it during the game and saw the spot for the first time last night. And it left me screaming at the TV set, even though I think it was a good ad.

Is a car that reads Facebook updates aloud to its driver safe? Should other drivers be allowed to sue the driver and maker of such a car for putting everyone else on the road in needless danger? Can we all sue Mark Zuckerberg? Lawsuits aren’t the answer, I hope, but I really do wonder at what point technology goes from “helpful infotainment” to “Are you kidding me?” dangerous distraction”

For the five years or so I’ve been covering mobile technology, my favorite soapbox has been the one labeled “Get off the phone and drive!” As Engadget’s Darren Murph put it the other day, in a report on the Federal government’s decision not to push for greater in-car technology restrictions at this time,

There are generally two prevailing trains of thought: one feels that any type of calling — be it handsfree or otherwise — is a terrible distraction to the driver, while the other feels that properly integrated technology is safe enough for use on the road.

Me, I’m in the former camp. I’m fully convinced that any type of calling is a terrible distraction to the driver. Now, I get the argument that said logic could extend to, “Well, you’d better not listen to the radio while driving, then. That’s a distraction, too.” But there’s at least some research-based evidence in favor of the theory that talking on the phone is a greater cognitive distraction than talking to a human passenger sitting next to you in the car. Given how I behave when talking on the phone while by myself in my office, I fully buy that theory. Seriously, I pace around, roll my eyes into my head, gesticulate wildly, and bump into stuff. I only do half those things when talking with somebody in person.

Fiddling with a gadget in your hand while driving is certainly a distraction, but taking the gadget out of your hand doesn’t necessarily eliminate the danger. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety doesn’t think so:

Given that crash risk increases substantially with drivers’ use of either hand-held or hands-free phones, bans on hand-held cellphones won’t eliminate the problem entirely.

Everyone’s got an agenda, and agendas are easy to support with agenda-based research, so I’m not saying the IIHS is all-knowing. But I tend to agree with this part of their agenda, anyway. Which brings me back to the Facebook Car. Let’s put aside for a moment the myriad other issues brought up by YouTubers in the comments on the tv ad in question (Do we really need to be that connected to Facebook? Is this the ultimate car for stalkers? How much is Zuckerberg getting paid?). Is a car that reads Facebook status updates aloud really safe to have on the road? Is it any different than a car with an infotainment system that reads traffic and weather updates, or text and email messages aloud? What about books on tape or DVDs playing on back-seat monitors with soundtracks that the driver can hear, too – aren’t those distracting?

While Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ponders what, if any restrictions to place on in-car technology, I turn the question over to you: Am I a longtime technology journalist who’s seen enough to know that driver distractions are real, and really dangerous, or am I actually a cranky dude who’s getting older and can’t keep up with the times?


Noah Kravitz

Noah Kravitz mourned the day that Star Castle was replaced in the pizza parlour he frequented as a kid. The sadness ended when he saw an older kid...

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