Thursday, November 13, 2014

Built-In Distraction: 'Hang Up and Drive' Gets More Difficult

It's easy to "hang up and drive" when you don't have the tools to tempt you — but when you do, it's easy to justify using them.

Let's take a look at how ubiquitous phones have become to driving. You may no longer use them to talk, but they still tells you where to go, and how. Pandora, iTunes, Amazon Music? Check. GPS and maps? Check.

Not only are phones tempting to use when we're on the road, but the technology and convenience they provide drivers as technology creeps further into vehicles makes putting them away that much harder.

When my husband purchased a new car this year, the first amenity the salesperson showed us was how to pair the smartphone with the car. It it was the cornerstone of the interactive stereo technology, and even the phone's GPS program was available via Bluetooth. Guess where that put my smartphone? Not in my purse.

When I drove the new car, I paired the phone before putting the car into traffic. Inevitably, however, I heard a song I wanted to skip. Back when changing the radio station or skipping a CD track was a single button on the dashboard, I could keep my eyes on the road and still filter my music easily and relatively safely. Now, however, that same act may involve multiple touches of the smartphone, which itself can be anywhere: on your lap, in the cup-holder, accidentally on the floor...

Auto makers may try to improve safety by installing phone and stereo function buttons on steering wheels, but drivers must have newer cars with that technology — and many of my family members, myself included, do not have new-enough cars for that.

In my 10-year-old car, I have an after-market device: an arm that holds the phone in place below the dashboard. It has no interface, no convenient buttons. If I want to listen to music, or change the music playing, I have to access the program on the phone. That requires me to take my eyes off the road.

I can rationalize that it's a quick fix, or it won't be dangerous to accomplish. Maybe I don't see other vehicles on the road so I think no one else will be affected. Perhaps I'm stopped at a red light, so that means I'm not moving so that makes it safe. Juicy justifications, all: multiple taps and swipes of the phone are anything but quick, I'm never completely alone on the road, and I must remain alert for drivers at stoplights.

Smartphones may offer hands-free GPS service, but that may not even be a reasonable option, considering that multi-tasking while operating a multi-ton vehicle is ill-advised under the best of circumstances, even with a skilled driver.

More importantly, when a text or call comes in and the phone is perched next to my hand, it's difficult to resist the impulse to read the screen or answer the phone (which, again, involves multiple keystrokes or swipes).

I am not alone. When I'm behind the wheel, I see many drivers, including professionals, operating their smartphones. If I see a car swerve into another lane, inexplicably slow down or stay stopped at a light after it turns green, I see the driver's head jerk up from her or his hand or lap in surprise.

How do we make our roads as safe as possible while using modern technology — or is that even possible?

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