If Distracted Driving is Bad…

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We’re told it’s not safe to text while drive because that’s a distraction. But how about all these buzzers and flashing lights and (yes, it’s true) suddenly vibrating seats and steering wheels? Many new cars comes equipped with some – or all – of the following:

Blind Spot Detection

Lane Change Assist

Lane Departure Warning

Cross Traffic Alert

Brake Assist/Collision Mitigation

Park Assist

Drowsy Driver Warning

Pedestrian Detection Warning 

Plus air bag sensors so sensitive they sense a “person” in the passenger seat when all you’ve got riding shotgun is a footlong from Subway.

Each with a buzzer/beeper and light show.

Plus multiple in-car LCD touchscreens, various mice and menus and (yes) Wi-Fi Internet access.

Is it all not… distracting to be accosted by such?

All new luxury cars – and more and more mid-tier (and soon, all) cars have or will have “safety” systems that buzz/beep/vibrate/flash angry warnings at you when – in the judgment of the sensors – you do something “unsafe” such as let your wheels touch the yellow or white painted lines in the road (Lane Departure Warning) or get within 10 yards of another car as during passing, or when drawing up behind a car turning off the road (Collision Mitigation/Brake Assist).

These flashing red warning lights and frantic beeps that erupt literally out of nowhere – and arguably, for no good reason – when you fail to slam on the brakes because the sensors think you ought to are the “e” equivalent of a shrieking child or your mother-in-law poking you in the ribs from behind.beep beep beep!

And pretty damned distracting.

Especially now that it’s become a kind of symphony.

Multiple buzzers and lights and vibrating steering wheels and seats, dancing together in a lurchy, unpredictable syncopation that works on you not unlike those recordings of screaming rabbits the DEA played at top volume toward the Branch Davidians hunkered in their compound at Waco.

You put your car in reverse and begin to back up out of a parking spot. Beep! Beep! Beep! The Park Sensors alert you to the not-near presence of another car you already see. But your concentration’s been broken. You reflexively stab the brakes. Or you actually do back into something because the buzzer and light show confused/startled you momentarily.

You’re driving along and up ahead – far ahead – a car has its right signal on and is slowing to make the turn-off. You do the mental calculation and know you can maintain a certain speed/closing distance because by the time you actually get to where the turning-off car is, it’ll be gone. But the Collision Mitigation System wants you to brake 30 yards out – for “safety” – and if you don’t, on comes the absolutely frantic Flashing Red Light show, accompanied by the shrieking Beep! Beep! Beep!edn110526_cs_fig2

If you’re not ready for this – or react to it the wrong way – you might just jerk the wheel instead of mash the brakes – and end up across the double yellow and into the path of a car coming the other way.

Saaaaaaaafety first!

Except it’s not “safe.”

Because it creates a new problem that didn’t exist before that’s arguably just as bad as the one it purports to salve.

If distractions are bad then fewer of them would be good, right?

From whatever source.

But this approach requires conceptual – as well as principled – thinking. And that’s in short supply these days.

Consider, as a parallel example, the almost religious crusade against “drunk” driving. It has become almost as grave a sin as pedophilia. I won’t defend people who have imbibed to the point of actual impairment, but that’s precisely the point. Actual impairment – no matter its type or source – is not the object of witch-burning fervor. Just “drunk” driving – as defined by an arbitrary blood alcohol number. Thus, a guy with a .10 BAC who runs a light and T-bones a minivan and kills a family is considered a cretin – and (rightly) subjected to severe criminal as well as civil sanction. But an old person with glaucoma who can barely see anymore who does exactly the same thing is treated much more leniently.

Yet both chose to drive while impaired.

Does the form of the impairment make a difference?

Why? How?

Back to “safety” buzzers and lights.safety crap pic

A cop will pull you over and ticket you for texting while driving because that’s “distracting” and presumably, “unsafe.” But the federal government can mandate (or the car companies fit their cars with) lights and buzzers that are objectively as or more distracting and that’s ok.

If I wreck because I was startled by a buzzer or momentarily distracted by a suddenly flashing red light, will the company that put this stuff in the car receive the bill for damages?

How about if I wreck because I can’t see what’s behind me on account of the twin Matterhorns (i.e., the huge “anti-whiplash” headrests that all new cars are afflicted with) which occlude my view to the rear by 30 percent or more?

Can I sue the bureaucrats at DOT who mandated these “safety” features?

Will someone give them a ticket… please? collision warning 2

The irony is that while the cars of the pre Safety Cult era (circa 1980s and older) were less crashworthy, you were arguably less likely to have a crash while driving one. There were fewer distractions. And you could see.

In a very real way, those old “unsafe” cars were safer.

Moreover, you tended to pay attention to driving when driving one of them  – because the situation demanded it. Cars were not idiot-proofed in those days. People were expected to not be idiots.

As a result of this pressure, there were fewer idiots.

Today, the reverse. The cars are more capable than ever. The average driver, much less so – having been encouraged to be so.

He is no longer expected to pay much attention; to avoid collisions, wandering over the double yellow (and backing up over children) on his own. Technology will be his safety net.

And a net it surely is.

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  1. As chronicled over the years in Flying Magazine, warning lights and audio alerts and recordings were added to the cockpits of airliners. They were triggered by normal operation of the airplane (example: while descending for landing, the “ground proximity” warnings would go off … duh!) to the point that the crews began to consider them background “noise” and ignored them. After several high-profile accidents, when investigation showed the correct “warning” signals were, indeed, activated, but ignored by the pilots due to all that repetition.

    The happy result was the FAA ruling that “Quiet Cockpit” would be the norm. All flashing lights, beeps, and other recorded sounds were only allowed in the case of actual emergency. Presto!! That kind of “accident” ceased to occur.

    Now, if only there were some kind of group like the NTSB or FAA that was interested in finding out WHY bad things happen in cars, which carry far more people than airplanes, maybe a similar ruling would be made. (This is me, not holding my breath…”

    Barnacle Bill

    • Hi Bill,

      The aviation example/analogy is most apt. Routine warnings become… routine. It’s a Boy Who Cried Wolf scenario. Or, imagine if – every day – your home’s smoke detector beeped several times. The next time it beeped, would you consider it urgent?

      I find I am much more situationally aware on, for example, my old bikes – which have no warnings lights/buzzers at all – so you’d damned well better be paying attention to what’s going on!

  2. Self driving cars are also self driving cameras that bring us all even closer to ubiquitous surveillance state of the near future.

    Under ubiquitous surveillance, it is not just the state watching people, but also people watching the state, and, worse: people watching people.

    There is no more auto mobility. Only mechanized mobilization devices for conveyance to approved destinations, all fully logged and monitor for absolute and total control and overlord convenience.

    For all of human history until the last few, this never happened. There was always someone far higher than any mere authority. And that person was the provider.

    There was only one iron law of the provider. My house my rules. If I’m the one providing you shelter, then I’m the one that gets to have things the way I like them. End of discussion. No exceptions.

    But now there’s a new un-natural law that quietly come to pass. My gangs. My thugs. My laws. My laws in a given territory, means I take whatever you provide as I like. And I tell you how to provide it, or even forbid you from providing for yourself and others.

    My laws. My house. My rules. Your efforts. You provide. You know what needs to be done and how to do it. I know nothing at all. Except how to hurt and to inflict violence. My savagery, my ungovernable devolving chaos. My whims. My indulgences, at least until nothing remains.

    My lunacy. My collapse and disarray. That is the new un-law of the land it seems to me.

  3. A similar thought occurred to me respecting the posted speed limits. In order to make sure you are not speeding, you have to take your eyes off the road to check the speedometer. According to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, “when drivers take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds, their crash risk doubles.”

    One steamboat. Two steamboat.

  4. OK, so now my car won’t let me parallel park? After all, I’m coming too close to other cars. Wonder if the brakes would automatically take hold, despite that I need to back up that additional 6 inches so I can get into the spot. And lane departure warning? Will that work in the snow? Or with the faded to the point of being invisible lines due to the snow and plow cycle? Or how about a construction zone where they have lines all over the road? This is getting stupid. I may never buy a new car again, but stick to models 2010 or older (even my 2010 Escape has the air-bag-off light problem with the sack of groceries you mentioned – but I can live with a simple indicator light).

  5. OMG, what a frick’in pain in the a**!! I’m so glad my Jeep is a ’99 without all that “big brother nanny state’ BS! If our future is to eventually be forced into driving one of these P.O.S. on a daily basis I think I’ll move to Cuba and drive a 40yo Lada. I think there’s alot more freedom there than here in alot of ways.

  6. Cops with laptops are assorted gear are never distracted because the badge grants them super powers and moral superiority.

    • That’s also why they can ‘speed’ with impunity and destroy entire houses to capture 1 man with a handgun.

  7. Well who can afford a new car these days anyway? With all these mandated so called safety systems the prices are insane. Not only that your personal property tax in Va and or registration fees in most other states are based on the governments assessment of your vehicles value. It really makes sense to just keep driving the old trusty Explorer and paying minimal personal property taxes as the assessment says the vehicle at ten years old has very little value.

  8. I always get that stupid beeping warning about not wearing my seatbelt that I decide to rarely ever wear because it’s damn near impossible for a cop or anyone else to tell if you have it on or not while driving past you at 30 mph or faster. It’s annoying but I just blare the stereo loud so it covers it up the incessant beeping.

  9. This sounds like a perfect opportunity to drudge up my persistent complaint about the “slip” warning on my 2012 Yaris. If it detects that traction is impaired at all — say, from driving on a bumpy road — warning lights come on. And if the car begins to slip even a little, even at low speed, an alarm goes off. Because I guess if there’s one thing that helps when your car is difficult to control and you really need to focus on what you’re doing, it’s a sudden beeping alarm going off.

    This is especially useful in Alaska in the winter!

    I’ve said for ages that the one and only warning buzzer I actually like is the one that goes off if I’ve left the headlights on. That alerts to to something I actually need to be alerted to, and, by definition, only when I’m NOT driving the car!

  10. When I take a look at new cars, I now gravitate away from the top-of-the-line of any given car line and towards the base model. Todays base models now include much of the top-line stuff from 20 years ago (power locks/windows, cruise, decent engine and stereo) and are largely free (for now) of the gee-gaws.

    • Another option is to order the car. Option the car with things that matter like better brakes, suspension, etc and don’t get stuff like all the electronic nonsense.

  11. I put the rear seats down on my Fiesta. I’ve also removed the back headrests (so I can put the seats down all the way.) The dealership asked why I don’t want to keep the rear seats up. I told them that:

    1) I’m the only one who drives this car and I rarely have riders with me (car is too small for passengers),
    2) I prefer the extra trunk space I get when the seats are down, and
    3) I can’t see out the back with those mondo-monster headrests up on the rear seat (and I have the hatchback model.)

    Interestingly, you can get the Fiesta in Europe as “panel-van” (meaning a hatchback coupe without the rear-seats), which would work better for me if they offered it in the US. Then again, they also sell the Fiesta with a Dura-torq diesel, which is being advertised on Ford’s UK website as getting a combined 86.6 British mpg, which is 72.11 US MPG. Ponder that one: 72mpg! And Ford US says that there’s no market for such a car in the US because diesel prices are 10% higher. I’d buy one! Hell if they could make a left-hand drive one, I’d say float one across the pond for me. I bet they’d get quite a market for those. http://www.ford.co.uk/CommercialVehicles/Fiesta-Van/Performance

    Then again, the US government would put so many rules & requirements for “safety”, demand it be sold with a urine exhaust treatment, and tons of redundant gear which won’t do much to make you safe, and the whole thing would, be reduced from 72mpg to 33mpg. But hey, you can browse social media in the car, and the vehicle comes with a rear-spoiler to give the illusion this thing is fast!

  12. The ultimate insult will be when the self-driving car continues to have all the buzzers and warning lights because they’re required to be there.

    • Eric,
      Been thinking over those self-driving cars and have come to the conclusion that if the computer drives the thing we should not need a) drivers license, b) insurance and we would never get a traffic ticket. At least that’s the way I look at it, but then I’m sorta nuts.

        • Charlie – I think you’re on to something (though the gunvermin probably think your on something). This may be what saves us from the self-driving car, the loss of revenue if they can’t ticket us.

          • In Saudi Arabia, there is little private car ownership. There are taxis available.
            Now, if a taxi has an accident, YOU are held liable. Why? Because if not for you, the taxi would not have been there. You sent them, YOU are responsible.
            Expect the same here should the self-driving car fail. You get hit while car is driving; you get the ticket, even though you had no control. Reason being, the car was only there because of YOU…

            • JEAN, the idea posited within your post and the “logic” behind it is so idiotic and convoluted that it must indeed be true.

              Is it any wonder why so many countries resist modern Western “thought”?

              • My bad. That should read:
                JEAN, the idea posited within your post and the “logic” behind it is so idiotic and convoluted that what you say must indeed be true.

      • CHARLIE, this is of course the question: When I am no longer responsible for myself, will they then leave me the hell alone?

        Sadly, we all know the answer…

  13. In industry, if you have a control panel with constant alarms, the operator will usually ask to minimize them ASAP, and only alert for the high priority ones. The reason is common sense too…if you’re constantly hearing bells and buzzers you will become accustomed to them, and start ignoring them as just “background”. The purpose of the buzzers is to alert you to MAJOR things, and a buzzer should only be as intrusive as what it’s trying to alert to. It’s called information overload, and it doesn’t take long before important alerts get shunted to the background when it’s all you hear all day long over NON-important ones.

    Sounds like cars are making the same mistake…so when a REAL “better stop now” alert comes, the driver will have long since started ignoring the alerts, and then they might as well cease to exist.

      • eric, the wife pulls up in a Buick Encore yesterday and first thing she says is she can’t see anything to the sides and back. The front passenger seat headrest was removable but not the rest. I flipped the back seats down, a tough sell if she’d had passengers. The backup camera screen was color and very large so it was easy to see and a good thing since the rear window left you virtually in the dark as backing up went. The screen had a grid that showed where the vehicle would go based on the direction of the steering tires, a good thing in my opinion……if you can’t simply see out the back.
        While you’re watching that screen though it’s tough to keep a look-out for those people who seem to be everywhere these days that will try to zip across behind you, cue Forrests’ mama.

        • and to think I survived years of driving big rigs, back before the days of backup cameras and such. All I had were a pair of “West Coast” mirrors. Had to put that long tall dry van into an amazing assortment of places. Oh, a time or two I decided to get out, walk back, and “eyeball” the situation. Most times, put it in low range reverse, slip the clutch, and idle back into the hole, around the corner, and up to the dock. Now they want me to have a backup camera or a doofus mirror (so convex ya cain’t interpert what is in there) showing the back bumper. Hmph.

          Gumint gonna be de death of us all

          • A backup camera on a trailer is the one thing that could help me. Trying to back around all sorts of obstacles including pipes with 1500 lbs of natgas running through them would be a great help. There’s been times I thought I’d wear the door off getting out, walking back and figuring the distance to some very dangerous pieces and parts. Everybody wants you as close as you can get and will motion you on never mind a big hole or some ground that appears to be firm that’s actually going to swallow your trailer axles when they’re on top of it.

            I’ve noticed recently a lot of trailers have cameras. Wish I were using one of them. I’d be real dead by now without my two convex spot mirrors on each side and my straight down cab mirror I can see the distance to what I’m backing beside.

            I even like the big convex hood mounted mirrors that give me another look when everything else is jacked around to show me nothing but the side of a trailer or a view across the country not pertinent to where I’m trying to go. I even had a spotter bring me back into black hole shadow where I wiped out the side of a shop. He left and I got the blame. I’d be in hog heaven if I only had to back around a corner and into a loading bay.

            • EIGHT, as a former truck driver I too can appreciate the addition of backup cameras and some other modern technologies. Indeed, one of the best ideas ever for truck driving was the invention of fender mirrors.

              This is not to say that all tech is helpful. I drove trucks with those boxes that would beep every time you crossed a lane or while actually backing into a dock because there were trucks or other objects within ten feet of your truck. “Distracting” is hardly a strong enough word for them.

              And, talking with current drivers, the “paperless” log computers are nothing short of maddening.

              And if I am not mistaken, the term, “flying by the seat of your pants” was coined when fighter pilots would turn off their distracting HUDs so that they could then fly the plane as they saw fit.

              It is one thing when tech aids the user. It is quite another when tech distracts/interlopes the user.


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