It’s Not the Touchscreen . . .

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This is news – but it’s hardly a surprise. Ready?

A study done by IAMRoadSmart (a saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety outfit based in the UK) has discovered that tapping/swiping/pinching and just gawping at in-car “infotainment” screens “can substantially impair a driver’s reaction times.”

And in other news, chickens sometimes lay eggs.

But is the news distraction – from whatever source – or bad driving? There is a distinction to be made, on the principle that some people can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Which is true. But it is also true that not all people are so afflicted. Maybe – arguably – the problem isn’t the tapping/swiping/pinching. Or even the texting.

Not per se.

To get a handle on why, consider that airplanes aren’t running into or over things – well, not usually. Almost all of them go up – stay up – and come down in an orderly, controlled manner. Notwithstanding the superabundance of potential distractions inside the cockpit of an airplane. There are panels of buttons and switches and screens; a Christmas tree array of lights that glow and blink. Buzzers and warnings galore.

Multiple LCD displays.

But the pilots deal with it all by dealing with it all as appropriate. They don’t check the weather at their destination airport on take-off roll. Once they have reached cruising altitude and the autopilot is on, then they check the weather.

Und so weiter.

It’s true, of course, that pilots are by definition high-skill people. The problem with driving is the accommodation of extremely low-skill people behind the wheel. Almost nothing is expected of drivers anymore except that they obey various rules, most of which have little and often nothing to do with maintaining control of a vehicle. The edicts prohibiting a right turn on red, irrespective of the absence of any traffic as a for-instance.

The government will sic armed thugs on people for not obeying such and other edicts – but is indifferent to the inability of many people to competently maneuver a car into a curbside parking spot without the “assistance” of technology. The demonstration of this basic competence is no longer required or even taught.

And the LCD screen gets the blame when a “driver” of that stultification wanders into the opposite lane.

This tendency is then competence-proofed via more “assistance” technology – rather than the far simpler (and certainly safer) expectation of competence. Cars are fitted with electric motors that yank the steering wheel in what sensors and computers think is the right direction; this is styled Lane Keep Assist.

It is a measure of our era that non-handicapped people are presumed to require “assistance” to keep their car in its travel lane. Ditto Brake Assist and – of course – Park Assist – both systems premised on the lack of fundamental competencies once expected of 15-year-old student drivers.

Who were expected to graduate into drivers – presumptively no longer in need of “assistance.”

Some will still insist that the problem is the distractions – not the driving. But if so then everyone who drives a car with distractions must, ipso facto, be distracted and – logically – have lost control of their vehicle at one time or another. The problem, as always, with such generalizations is the pesky presence of exceptions.

Myself, for instance.

As a car journalist, I drive the latest distraction-laden new cars. A different distraction-laden car every week. I go from one to the next before having had time to become instinctively familiar with any of them, in the way most people are with their personal cars – which they get used to over months and years of driving the same car every day.

I haven’t text-wrecked or tap/swipe bumped anyone. Ever.

It is not because I am Michael Schumacher’s lot boy, either. It is because I am focused on the act of driving when I drive. And because I learned to drive, back in the days when student drivers were expected to become minimally proficient and required to demonstrate basic competences – such as the not-Schumacherian ability to park curbside without “assistance.”

If this was beyond your range, so was a driver’s license.

Attendant to this idea was the notion that if you lost control of your car, it wasn’t the car’s fault. Or anything in the car, either.

The fault was yours – the driver’s.

It’s a sound principle, in the same way that the old (and now defunct) idea that it was necessary to bring forth a victim rather than a statute in order to establish that a crime had been committed was, once upon a time, a canon of Western Civilization.

Which is now very much in need of “assistance.”

. . .

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  1. Eric,

    Though there are multifunction LCDs in today’s cockpits, the vast majority of the panels consist of switches, knobs, and controls. This is because they offer TACTILE FEEDBACK; that is, the pilots will know what position or mode the control is in via touch.

  2. Eric, please don’t give them any ideas.

    The modern day airline cockpit is exactly what they have planned for us: no talking (see “sterile cockpit” rules) outside of that absolutely necessary to navigation. Total control of every leg of the journey by hostile, condescending government “controllers”, who will tell you every move to make, and woe betide you if you do not follow their orders, but they will have no legal responsibility if everything goes wrong. Automated systems that do everything, while you are expected to remain in position of cat like readiness, monitoring every dial, screen and computer. All under total audio and video surveillance.

  3. So Eric…now you’re saying that touch screens with no tactile feedback…that require the driver to take eyes off the road to operate secondary functions… is just fine???! Because a good, attentive driver should be able to overcome this handicap, and still reach a destination without crashing?

    Do you really think your “airliner on a two plus hour flight on autopilot” is a realistic analogy to a 30 minute suburban commute, with current “driver assist” technology? I don’t. And it’s kind of shocking to see you even propose that.

  4. Until Corona fever set in, the fatality rate in the US has been on the rise since 2012-13 or so. During that time, cars with distracting touch screens, in car telematics, and ever larger body pillars (and smaller windows) have been added to the vehicle mix. While there is a case for the smartphones causing some amount of the increase, they have also reduced accidents by providing drivers navigation assistance in areas with huge amounts of concrete sprawl. Without it, navigating todays suburban and urban areas would be difficult, so because of that, accidents have decreased in some areas. The common denominator is the changes to the vehicle mix. In the last 3-5 years the increasing use of “assists” is dumbing down drivers much in he same way GPS is taking people’s ability to learn direction with paper maps. What has happened to car design is inexcusable.

  5. The screens are asinine. They remove a huge part of the ergonomics of driving a car, which is the tactile, which creates muscle memory. For instance, for awhile there in the 00’s, it seemed every Jap car had the same heater/ac/fax controls. Dial for temp, Dial for vent, dial for fan.

    Once you got used to the car, it took nothing but a short glance to target, then adjust while still looking at the road. Same with heated seat controls – a switch, with a light that you could hit without thinking.

    I had a brand new Dodge Durango as a rental not long ago. It was a little chilly one morning. And as I drove up the road, it started occurring to me that my ass and hands were on fire. I looked all over (while in rush hour traffic) for the switch to cut it off. There was none.

    It took 5 minutes of stabbing at the screen (While driving) to find the menu to cut off the heated seats and steering wheel.

    Dumbest design ever.

  6. Morning Eric,

    Safety advocates, generally being proudly ignorant of economics (perhaps best understood as the study of incentives), insist that every added safety feature is, obviously, an improvement. What they do not, or will not, accept is that every new safety feature alters people’s behavior. It does not add to the tools available to the driver, it alters what the driver deems necessary. Drivers who rely on back up cameras, don’t check their surroundings as they used to. Lane keep and brake assist reduce the level of attention that the driver deems necessary to be safe. Partial self driving reduces the drivers perceived need to pay attention even more. Self parking prevents the intuitive understanding of spacial awareness that used to develop naturally. Safety advocates, when made aware of this, sputter, “well, they shouldn’t”. But, they will, it is inevitable, admonishing them to do otherwise, won’t make any difference. Only a small number of drivers will maintain the high levels of attention expected, and needed, before the advent of “assist” technology. This number will decline as “our” generation ages out. New drivers will never develop the instincts for awareness that used to be automatic and necessary.

    As I’ve been saying for well over thirty years, “safety third, that seems about right”. Most people think I’m joking, I’m not. The pursuit of safety uber alles is dehumanizing, and dangerous.


    • Excellent, Jeremy!

      Plus, it’s just insufferable and no way to live. I’m not normally one to use vulgar language, but all of this is rousing my fury and sometimes, nothing else quite makes the point, which is:

      Pussies get fucked.

    • Glad to know I’m not the only one who notices this. Even people who admit, on a basic level, that people have the right to choose their preferred balance of risk versus other factors, still insist that X number of airbags should be mandatory because “people won’t buy them if they don’t have to” or because “manufacturers are scummy/greedy and won’t install them if they don’t have to”. Both of these comments are so wrong I don’t even know where to start, but the thing with that is, once you start saying things like that, you’re no longer thinking of people as PEOPLE. You’re thinking of them as headcounts, numbers, contributors to statistics. You don’t care about them anymore, all you care about is making a number go down.

      People on car forums half-laugh, half-cringe at the idea that airbags used to be optional, and think the manufacturers were greedy scum for not immediately installing as many as they could as standard equipment. They speak with wonderment, as if discussing some quaint primitive civilization from long ago and far away.

      But who am I kidding, modern “car enthusiasts” are so freakin’ spoiled that they complain about having to turn their own headlights on when they turn their wipers on, instead of the car doing it automatically.

      • some car forums are better than others but most of them have been infested by dumb fucks of one sort or another.

    • @ Jeremy
      you said (more or less) what I have thought for ages. People (generally) aren’t paying attention and they ASSume that technology will compensate (among other things). It’s hard to live in lala land if you’re paying attention.

  7. Perhaps if the steering wheel was replaced with a video game controller… Unless one is a professional athlete, physical skills are not only no longer required, but not even desired. Every one of my local news services describe car accidents in a peculiar way. “His/her car left the road….”. No, it did not. It was driven off the road. Cars, like firearms, are inanimate objects, requiring operator input to do any thing at all, much less “leave the road”. Such is our world, where no one accepts responsibility, and their first thought in any unfortunate event is to find some thing, or some one else to blame.


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