Could the solution to distracted driving be something as simple as a cleaner typefont?

I think there’s a fair number of adjustments we could make to cut down on technology-based distracted driving. In some cases, we’re moving in the wrong direction. I don’t mean by having more and more devices that distract us. Rather, because we’re moving away from physical buttons and knobs, which are easier to manage without taking your eyes off the road for very long, to touchscreens which require more precision and, thus, more attention.

The biggest thing we can do, though, is really ramp up R&D on voice control. I have my smartphone set up so that it reads text messages to me as they come in. I’m not far from being able to reply with little more effort than changing a radio dial. But the last inches seem to be the hardest.

More to the point, though, I’ve had to “rig” my devices to do what I can do.

So hasn’t more effort been put into this? Well, a lot of effort has been. Especially by the carmakers themselves.

Studies have demonstrated that voice systems are actually a hazard in themselves:

What makes the use of these speech-to-text systems so risky is that they create a significant cognitive distraction, the researchers found. The brain is so taxed interacting with the system that, even with hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, the driver’s reaction time and ability to process what is happening on the road are impaired.

The research was led by David Strayer, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah who for two decades has applied the principles of attention science to driver behavior. His research has showed, for example, that talking on a phone while driving creates the same level of crash risk as someone with a 0.08 blood-alcohol level, the legal level for intoxication across the country.

The counterargument to this is that, well, people are going to have the technology anyway. Even if you ban them from the cars themselves. Would we rather they be using it trying to tap virtual screens on a small keyboard, or talking back and forth with the device? The latter is obviously the safer in the abstract.

The concern, then, would be that people who wouldn’t pick up a device will talk to the device. So leading to less danger on a per-user individual, but a higher collective hazard because more people are doing it. This is possible, though it starts to move closer to the territory of the argument against ecigarettes (the danger being in its comparative safety).

Keeping this technology out of the cars themselves won’t keep them off the phones that will be in the cars. Laws against texting and driving don’t work. Obama’s former TranSec Ray LaHood wanted to disable phones in cars, but that disables passenger phones as well as driver phones.

The underlying problem won’t really go away until the cars drive themselves.

Category: Road

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