At the Intersection of Technology and Distracted Driving

technology and distracted driving
Things move fast at the intersection of technology and distracted driving. Jens Karlsson / Moment / Getty

Distracted driving may have only just started to really take hold in the public consciousness in the last few decades, but the problem itself has been around for the entire history of the automobile. Some of the biggest distractions we face today come in the form of technologies like cell phones and poorly-designed infotainment and telematics interfaces. In fact, some parents are so worried about these types of issues that they install driving apps on their teens' phones to reduce distracted driving.

Historically, people got all worked up back when car radios first became a thing, and other distractions—both inside and outside your vehicle—don’t have anything to do with technology at all. And even when technology is involved, it isn't always the bad guy in the equation. In fact, any recent developments in the field of advanced driver assistance systems can actually help reduce distracted driving. The situation is tremendously complex, but with a combination of education and the right technologies, it may be possible to survive the intersection of technology and distracted driving. 

What is Distracted Driving?

Driving has become such a mundane task that it’s easy to forget that you’re often in command of a ton or more of rolling steel every time you’re on the road. Considering the amount of damage an out of control car can do—to both the driver and any innocent bystanders—driving is a tremendous responsibility, but many of us have driven so many times, and drive so often, that we end up sort of going on autopilot. It’s tremendously easy to forget that safe driving really does take a lot of concentration, and there are so many things both in and outside our cars that can create distractions.

In essence, distracted driving is the state of operating a vehicle without one hundred percent of your focus devoted to the task at hand. Rather than simply driving, and paying attention to the road, a distracted driver is engaged in two or more activities, which include both driving and a distraction such as operating the radio, talking to a passenger, disciplining children, or even rubbernecking as they pass an accident. Since these distractions demand at least part of the driver’s attention, they all result in a more dangerous situation for everyone involved.

Why Is Distracted Driving a Problem?

Different types of distracted driving are associated with differing levels of risk, but any level of distraction can be dangerous. Some sources lay the blame of about one-quarter of all accidents one one form of distracted driving or anything, and about 16 percent of all fatal crashes involve distracted driving as a contributing factor. Things are even worse for certain segments of the population, with distracted driving factoring into well over half of all accidents that involve a teen driver according to the AAA Foundation.

Although distracted driving has always been a problem, at one level or another, drivers have more distractions to deal with today than at any other time in history. Distractions, like eating, shaving, applying makeup, or even talking to passengers, have always existed, but entertainment options like in-car DVD players, communications devices like cell phones, and finicky infotainment systems didn’t exist just a few short decades ago, and these are some of the worst offenders in terms of distractions. For instance, while talking on the phone and talking to a passenger are both distractions, having a passenger in the car means another set of eyes looking out for potential hazards, which mitigates the potentially dangerous effects of driving distracted to some degree.

How Can Technology Help Decrease Distracted Driving?

Technology is usually the problem when it comes to distracting us on the road, but a number of automakers and other innovators are also trying to create ways for technology to mitigate the effects of distracted driving. For instance, pairing a phone for handsfree calling is often cited as being safer than placing calls the old fashioned way—although talking on a cell phone is still a distraction, however you do it.

Other technologies have been designed to kick in before an inattentive driver can cause an accident. Many of these systems are already on the road in the form of adaptive cruise control, automatic braking, lane departure warning systems, and other similar technologies. Although these systems all use different methodologies to perform unique functions, the basic idea is that they monitor the movement of a vehicle and activate if a dangerous situation is detected. For instance, if a lane departure warning system detects that a vehicle is about to veer out of its lane, it may sound an alarm or even take corrective steering action, while adaptive cruise control can prevent an inattentive driver from tailgating, and automatic brakes may prevent a rear end collision.

Can Automotive Safety Technologies Go Too Far?

Some safety technologies are indisputable lifesavers, like seat belts, and others, like airbags, are absolutely vital, with a few important caveats. Other technologies, like the ones mentioned in the previous section, have been met with mixed feelings from many drivers. For instance, it’s easy to see how a safe, conscientious driver might resent the way that an adaptive cruise control system attempts to “take control,” rather than sitting back and enjoying the ride. Everyone reacts to these technologies in their own way, and while the efficacy of each system is still being studied—and advances are still being made—it’s hard to say one way or the other who is right. But can some so-called safety technologies actually go too far?

In the interest of preventing accidents that can occur as the direct result of behaviors like distracted driving and road rage, your car may one day be able to “read” your emotional state or level of attentiveness. One such example is a system that will look for your head to nod, indicating a state of drowsiness, which might set off an alarm that you would only be able to shut down by pulling over, getting out of your car, and walking around for a few minutes to wake up. Another example is a system that would actually read microexpressions to determine your emotional state. This type of system could then be capable of taking corrective actions to prevent an instance of road rage.

These types of systems may sound good in theory—especially when they’re imposed on other drivers—but they also beg the question of how much control we are willing to give up when we slide behind the wheel. If you’ve ever been the victim of road rage, you might feel a certain sense of relief in knowing that other drivers are shackled by systems designed to prevent them from tailgating, cutting you off, or brake checking you. But until and unless these technologies become standard, how likely is it that a legitimately unsafe driver, or one prone to fits of road rage, will seek out a new car that’s capable of reading his emotional state and cutting it off at the pass?