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Is technology the cause of car crashes? Or the cure?

Mike Elgan | Nov. 4, 2013
Passing laws to minimise accidents caused by distracted drivers is a good idea. But let's not dump advanced technology prematurely just because we assume it's a distraction, says Mike Elgan.

The fervor to criminalize Google Glass

The most advanced technology I use is Google Glass. It's so advanced that it doesn't even exist yet, at least as a generally available consumer product.

Various people with anti-technology biases can't wait to ban Glass for drivers. For example, it has already been formally banned in the U.K. And just this week, a woman in San Diego named Cecilia Abadie was ticketed for wearing Google Glass while driving. (She was also ticketed for speeding.)

The cop didn't make up a law against wearing Glass. He cited her for a real law that essentially makes illegal the use of any kind of video screen while driving. (Abadie claims that she wasn't using such a screen -- that Glass was off.)

I can't know the particulars. And neither can the police officer. It's almost certain that he doesn't actually know whether her Glass screen was on or not. It's far more likely that he pulled her over, saw Glass, experienced a moment of what journalist and professor Jeff Jarvis calls "techno panic" and cited her for being distracted by her advanced technology.

My beef is with the bias against technology. If looking at a screen is illegal, why not cite every driver using a GPS?

And why is the law biased against "screens"? How are digital displays more distracting than analog knobs, buttons and controls?

And why are electronically-based distractions banned while non-electronic ones are not?

Let's say there's an accident and police find in the wreckage a newspaper, a radio, a GPS device, a passenger, a half-eaten sandwich and a smartphone with a recent incoming text. They'll probably attribute the cause of the accident to texting while driving, for no other reason than a bias against technology.

A surprising discovery

Remember the "hang up and drive!" movement, with associated bumper stickers? Before texting was as popular as it is now, everyone was apoplectic about the distraction caused by talking on mobile phones.

However, a study conducted by the Carnegie Mellon University and the London School of Economics analyzed more than 8 million car accidents and road fatalities of all kinds, looking for (among other things) correlations between drivers talking on mobile phones and the accidents. To their surprise, they found no correlation. When the number of phone calls went up, for example, the number of car accidents did not go up.

This study suggests that it's possible that our assumptions about technology may be wrong. And the impulse to ban super advanced technology, such as Google Glass, may be wrong as well.

What if Google Glass is the solution?

The U.K. ban on Glass was enacted without evidence or study -- in fact, to the best of my knowledge, without a single report of Glass causing a single accident. Meanwhile, the distractions I listed earlier are known to have caused fatal car crashes, yet they remain perfectly legal.

 

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