Distracted drivers kill. Not just themselves, unfortunately, but innocent others: conscious drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians, passengers. In 2012, for example, 3,328 people were killed in distracted driving crashes.
So why, some of us wonder, are today's cars designed to distract? Touch screens for multiple uses, gadgets for audible texting, voice-activated music or phone calls, GPS instructions that can be conflicted or confusing. Aids and upgrades? Or distractions?
Even with two hands on the wheel -- tough, when you're working with a touch screen -- it is not possible to have any of the above in use without being distracted from the essential goal of driving: getting from point A to point B without endangering yourself or others. That goal once summed up the business of driving.
But cars and driving have changed in recent years. Cars are sold on the strength of how they make you feel -- free, macho, superior. Driving, at least in the ads, is not a matter of getting from point A to point B, but "an experience." An enhancement of self, time and energy.
My friend Mac spends a good bit of time and energy on the 1962 Volvo which is the family transportation, not always to the delight of his wife. But a functioning car is a functioning car. It features no electronic gizmos, no internet connections or GPS voice; the driver gets in, puts his hands on the wheel and simply watches the road while reaching his destination.
Films have been made -- among the most moving is Werner Herzog's From One Second to the Next -- showing the tragedies in the wake of distracted drivers. Books have been written that highlight both the addiction to distraction and the danger; most recently A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel, who won a Pulitzer in 2010 for his New York Times series "Driven to Distraction."
Recently I was a passenger in a new car with one of the now-standard dashboard computer screens. Traveling 75 mph on a well-lit highway we were passing an accident of some sort and a police car with red and blue lights flashing when the dashboard computer screen blinked, a beep sounded and a friendly voice from somewhere said, "Hi, I just wanted to check with you about the wine." Happily, the driver understood the blink, knew the voice and had earlier set the interior phone to speaker since she wasn't using ear plugs. She was immediately able to switch from the conversation we'd been having to a conversation about buying wine for the dinner party ahead that evening -- while maintaining speed and staying in the same lane. The driver is also a highly skilled multi-tasker who hadn't had any wine at all yet.
But after the phone conversation ended (and my heartbeat had gone back to normal) the driver told me she hadn't noticed the police car.
Suppose the flashing police light had been a warning of hazard ahead? Suppose another driver on another, more troubling, phone call had done something unexpected in another lane? However skilled at both driving and multi-tasking, could my driver have had enough remaining undistracted resources to keep driving safely?
Given my choices, I would take sharing the road with Mac and his '62 Volvo over all these roads filled with cars equipped with audible texting devices, voice-activated music systems and dashboard computer screens.
Unfortunately, we no longer have that choice.