Saturday, January 23, 2010

We've been trying to distract drivers for decades, but they keep driving more

Photo from the NY Times

The recent proposals to place internet enabled devices on dashboards has rightly raised concerns about distracting drivers even more than they already are with cell phones and other devices. Distracted drivers are dangerous to themselves and others (not to mention the likely congestion effects), and the internet on the dash seems about as efficient a way to ensure that the driver doesn't pay as much attention as possible. But like many bad ideas, distracting drivers and making cars more appealing by making them less about driving has been around for decades.

Here is a Cadillac Marahani that GM built for the 1956 Motorama show that features a kitchen sink among other conveniences. I guess we're better off with people eating drive-thru rather than actually preparing their meals and cleaning up after themselves, but nevertheless the trend is clear: automakers have always devoted substantial efforts to making cars friendlier to use and more like an accessory of everyday life.

These efforts to improve the ease of use of cars has likely helped increase their overall usage. After all, how many people would be willing to endure their same commute if they had a three-speed manual transmission, no a/c and a lousy stereo? Probably not as many. The amount of really long commutes (1+ hour) grew substantially in the 1990s. Much of that increase can be explained by metropolitan structure and household changes, but perhaps some might be explained by the use of cell phones and other creature comforts that improved the overall quality of the auto commute. Driving for an hour is less onerous if you can do business, talk to your family or whatever else you want to do with a phone.

So we've been trying to distract drivers from the task at hand, and we have seen a concurrent increase in driving. Obviously what happens within the car is only part of the way driving has been made easier--look at street design, signage and other aspects of the infrastructure to see that the landscape favors making driving as thoughtless as possible. This makes me wonder what a 2010 Motorama would highlight. What are the cars of the future? I'd like to see self-driving vehicles. But those would have a verge large impact on our cities and towns. In any event, it seems that the improvements to autos are an under-appreciated but potentially major influence on travel decisions. I'll suggest that any new regulation about this starts by outlawing a kitchen sink in the passenger seat.

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