Attitudes to drunk driving have changed our behavior. So it's routine now: the designated driver, the understanding that you won't let your friends, colleagues, spouses drive home drunk. If they try, you stop them. You certainly don't get in the car with them.
But the other day I was in a car, with my daughter, being driven by a friend who, because the journey was long, fitted in a conference call. I sat frozen in my seat. What could I do? Insist on getting out? We were in the middle of nowhere. I sat, silent and afraid, wondering at the danger we were in. To this day I'm not sure what silenced me more: practical difficulties or simple fear of embarrassment.
My problem was that I'd just written a chapter in my new book, Willful Blindness, which is all about how, and why, we ignore the obvious. In what sounds like a fun piece of research, Frank Drews at the University of Utah divided 40 students into three teams. The first team operated a driving simulator; the second drove on the simulator while talking on a mobile phone. The third bunch got to operate the simulator after drinking enough vodka to take their blood alcohol over the limit. The team using the mobile phones had more rear-end collisions and their braking time was slower. Drews and his colleagues concluded that the drivers using phones didn't have enough cognitive capacity to devote to their driving. (And no, hands-free sets make no difference.)
We don't like to admit it, but the brain has hard limits to what it can take in. A little like bandwidth, when there's too much going on, some data slows down and some gets lost. That's when you make mistakes.
In the end, my journey ended safely, with no damage to body or friendship. And now, any time I call someone and find them driving, I arrange to call back. But I'm left wondering: why is fear of embarrassment so powerful that it leaves us and our children in danger?