David Strickland does not like the DVD player installed in your car, or the computer in the dashboard. He’s not a big fan of the Ford Sync, and he probably doesn’t even like your car radio if it’s too loud. Who, you might ask, is this buzz kill who hates all this stuff that makes driving fun? The administrator of the National Highway Safety Administration, that’s who.
And he’s not an uptight Puritan, either. His concern is purely safety: namely distracted driving.
Distracted driving is a real problem. You’re probably most familiar with it from laws being passed making texting while driving a crime, but that’s just one aspect of it. A lot of people are hurt and killed when a driver picks the wrong moment to go flick the radio volume knob up a few notches or adjust the thermostat in the vehicle. Ever wonder why steering wheels all have volume controls now? It’s proven to reduce injuries and fatalities.
The jury is still out on items such as hands-free systems for cell phones. Depending on who you ask, they at least manage to keep both hands on the wheel instead of one ear plugged and one hand holding up the phone, or they just exacerbate the problem, impairing the driver as much as slamming two shots of tequila before hitting the road.
Strickland made this proclamation right in the middle of a huge conference to — get this — make cars as distracting as possible. Well, not literally, but figuratively. He noted that he “wasn’t in the business of helping people post on Facebook better, ” which was obviously squarely aimed at the Chevy Cruze, which makes a bit of a big deal out of the fact that it can read you your Facebook posts while you drive. In fact, social networking in cars is increasingly becoming a big deal, with built-in apps to access your various social media accounts to keep you updated while you drive and, of course, to let you update.
Personally, we kind of wonder what could be so exciting that your car needs to tweet about it, but that’s just us.
What Strickland is concerned about is “cognitive distraction.” That is, you take your mind off the task at hand to focus on something else, like the fact that your girlfriend just dumped you through Facebook. While the NHTSA is concerned about people taking their eyes off the road or their hands off the wheel, it’s the cognitive impairment that really concerns them.
Does this mean that social networking systems and other gimmicks are going to be outlawed in vehicles? It’s possible, but unlikely. Texting while driving was kind of a no-brainer: hands, eyes and mind all off the road at once was a pretty simple call. But good luck getting cell phones banned from cars: we’ve been talking in our cars for decades.
Mostly the concern right now is teenagers, who are, of course, very easily distracted by their friends, their phones, and just about anything that has a touch screen. Everyone agrees that teenagers shouldn’t have cars that tweet, on general principle if nothing else. But for the rest of us? In the end, it might be up to us to prove we can handle tweeting hands-free in our fancy new cars.