Look out!

A good motto to live your life by; look out!
Last year saw the first rise in road deaths for decades, despite cars being safer than ever. This is truly shocking, already we suffer about two thousand road deaths every year in the UK, just compare that stat to war deaths and cancer victims. It’s a scandal. And of course it doesn’t have to be this way at all.
There’s a trick that I learnt as a motorcyclists, used when passing a T junction, one of the prime danger areas for vulnerable bikers. If there is a car at the junction waiting to pull out, you stare at their eyes, strangely usually they then look at you and acknowledge you, if they don’t then you know they haven’t seen you and you slow ready for them pulling out in front of you. It becomes a sixth sense for bikers who survive long enough to become experienced.
I stopped riding my beloved Triumph a few years ago because there was a sudden increase in people not engaging with me or the traffic around them. I still use the technique in the car to good effect, but in the last two years I have notices a massive increase in people who are driving but seem completely disengaged from their surroundings.
I do a high mileage, spend a lot of time on motorways and A roads. Barely a week passes without me getting stuck in a traffic jam, only to slowly crawl past a multiple car pile up. It’s ridiculous, people just driving into each other, what a waste.
I am not sure what the cause is, but I have notice a number of trends in behaviour and in some technology that must be called into question. Obviously the problem is people not looking out, not thinking ahead, not concentrating on the job in hand. But there must be a cause for this noticeable change.
There seems to be much more driver aggression, lane 3 on most motorways is a battlefield with cars tailgating horrifically and slamming on brakes at the last millisecond. This may be to do with society, maybe the saturation of violent films and games, even Top Gear features the occasional helicopter gun ship now, this violent environment is everywhere.
But also our lifestyles are more fraught, specially since the recession which left many of us in poor financial state and having to work longer hours for less pay, stressful environments cause stressful behaviour.
Also we have become an ‘on demand’ culture, where slogans like ‘because you deserve it’ are flung at us left right and centre. We demand more, we expect not to be delayed, to get through fast. But of course this is just being selfish and not considering others. Clearly this negates the spirit of cooperation and camaraderie that is so essential for driving in heavy traffic.
We all know there has also been an increase in mobile phone use too, to me this is astonishing and may only be explained as being a result of drivers simply not understanding the risks. Despite being bombarded by information and statistics clearly showing the danger of phone use whilst driving, many drivers don’t get it. Maybe this is because we have so much exposure to violent and extreme images, games that turn killing and war into entertainment, films that glorify guns and extreme violence, that a safety campaign seems weak by comparison. Texting whilst driving is bizarre, why would anyone think it a good idea to not look at the road and concentrate on something down in their hand whilst covering ground at tens of meters per second in over a ton of machinery? But it’s not just phones that divert our attention.

Find out what all those buttons actually do!
Find out what all those buttons actually do!

Touch screens now seem to adorn every new model, they allow a huge array of complex controls to be put in one place which saves space and money. But there’s a big problem, a touch screen demands that you look at it, there is no tactile feedback at all. With old fashioned heater controls you could turn the heat or fan speed up without looking at the knob, you just reached over to where you knew the knob was and felt it move as you adjusted it. Easy, simple and absolutely no need to take your eyes off the road, unlike touch screens.
It is clear to me that any control that the driver is expected to use should not require them to stare intently at the centre console, in an old car you needed no more than a quick glance to operate switches or knobs, so touch screens are not really progress in my view. But things like voice command, which is already available on many luxury cars, doesn’t distract you and certainly is progress.
You see, anything that you have to look at carefully and think about, such as touch screens or mobile phone screens, focuses your mind on that area at the expense of your peripheral awareness. Usually as you walk down the street you are processing data from your peripheral vision and hearing to build a subconscious picture of the world around you, and not just what’s directly in front of you. In fact it’s happening to you right now, you’re reading this and your mind is in here with me, which is why you are completely unaware of that weird bloke staring at you over your shoulder.
Made you look!
Being aware of the traffic around you when driving is vital if you have to make an emergency manoeuvre, if a car cuts you up on the motorway you might not have time to look in the mirror and over your shoulder to check there is a clear space to move into, peripheral awareness is vital and is hugely compromised by using things like touch screens and phone displays.
Risk compensation is a phrase commonly bandied about, usually to do with the perceived safety of ABS, crumple zones and air bags. The safer we feel the faster we feel comfortable driving, but more importantly feeling safe makes us concentrate less. You know the feeling, you feel comfy and your mind wanders, then all of a sudden you realise you have no recollection of driving the last five miles. Humans need stimulation to stay awake, but modern cars are very quiet, with smooth running suspension, great sound systems. Not only is this a more relaxing place to be, but also the workload on the driver has been reduced, many functions are automatic such as lights and wipers so you don’t even have to think about road conditions any more. Whilst this may help reduce driver fatigue it also reduces our sensitivity to what is happening around us, increasing the chances of making a mistake and even crashing.
Certainly technology has a part to play here, but of course what matters is how we use it. Having a mobile phone is fine, texting whilst driving at forty meters per second is clearly not fine. We all have a responsibility to use our tools without causing others undue risk. So clearly there is something needed in our education system and media to bring this moral code back to strength.
It is fair to say that a similar responsibility lies with car companies when it comes to things like touch screens. But it is also fair to say that companies make things they think people want, if we the customer reject such things then they wouldn’t be there. The choice is ours.

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