Cars are increasingly being used as mobile offices, powder rooms and cafes — activities not generally compatible with focusing on the road ahead. Not surprisingly, accidents due to inattentive or just plain addled driving are on the rise.
Several states — including Vermont, Connecticut, Maryland and Texas — have either passed or are weighing legislation that would add eating-while-driving, personal grooming (and playing an instrument) to the list of behind-the-wheel no-nos.
Hooray for that — as far as it goes.
The real problem is we’ve made driving much too easy. Try “multi-tasking” behind the wheel of, say, a ‘68 Ford F100 pick-up with no power steering and three-on-the-tree. You’ll be a statistic before you get more than two bites into that Angus Thickburger.
In the old days, you paid attention to the road — and kept both hands on the wheel — because you didn’t have much choice.
If you wanted to live.
Today, after decades of refinement, our cars are virtually effortless to drive. Indeed, that adjective (”effortless”) is often precisely the one automakers hope will show up in reviews of their latest offerings. But think on that a moment.
It is literally true that an average seven-year-old is physically capable of operating the typical new car — even if the “car” in question is actually a 6,000-lb. SUV. More and more new cars don’t even require the physical strength needed to turn a key. Just push a “start” button. That’s it. Slide the (yes, “effortless”) gear selector into Drive and tally-ho!
As the commercial says, even a caveman could do it.
So — why are we surprised that “driving” is almost oxymoronic? That not just our cars — but the bedazzled life-forms behind the wheel — are basically on auto-pilot and oblivious to much of what’s happening around them? And running into things — sometimes causing great harm?
We get in — and fiddle with the GPS system. Or download MPEGS from our iPods. Or watch a DVD. Or watch the Park Sensor’s bar graphs and beeps — and let it (not our own two eyes) tell us when we’re too close to the curb.
Wake up, sleepyhead!
Driving is no longer something to look forward to for most of us; time spent in a car is a part of our workday — and a chore. Therefore, the automakers work overtime to make our cars as close to being four-wheeled lounges/offices/wi-fi centers (and maybe soon, kitchenettes) as possible. It’s all about being productive. Being a good driver is almost a quaint notion; a throwback to some earlier time of earthbound barnstorming and pony express style adventurism.
We have no need for that sort of thing anymore. We want our cars to be simple to operate — so they are more and more complex. Thus we spend more and more of our time gazing at and fiddling with various mouse inputs, LCD displays, DVD-ROM players, touch screens, menus — and so on. Sooner or later, we find ourselves impaled on a telephone pole — maybe while we’re right in the middle of an important call.
There are three possible ways to deal with this situation.
One, we make cars less effortless again. No more Park Assist or back-up buzzers and closed-circuit cameras. No more “intelligent” cruise control. Nor more Lane Departure Warning buzzers. Definitely none of the new stuff — self-correcting steering, “active” accident avoidance systems, etc. Make it so you have to drive the damn thing again.
Two, we impose remedial driver’s ed on every person who is involved in an at-fault accident. If they fail the test at the end of the session, no more license. The general public has every right to insist on a minimum level of competence; the current dumbed-down, least-common-denominator farce we have isn’t half of what we need.
Three, we concede that neither of the first two options has any chance of being implemented. Therefore, we throw in the towel — and let the cars take over entirely. Self-driving cars are almost a reality anyhow — and certainly within our grasp, technologically speaking.
Then we we can gabble on the phone all we like — and stuff our ever-more-obese selves with ever-large portions of fast food.
It’ll all be deliciously effortless.
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