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Technology May 2012

Driving Computers with Wheels

By Bill Siuru

Lane departure, pedestrian, and drowsy driving warning systems as well as brake assistance and active cruise control save lives, but their displays and warnings can be a distraction especially to seniors.

The National Highway Transportation Safety (NHSTA) reports, of all police-reported crashes in 2010, some 17 percent involved driver distraction. About a third to half of these accidents were attributed to distraction when the driver talked on a cell phone, tuned a radio, entered an address in a navigation system, or did something else requiring taking eyes off the road and a hand off the wheel for even a couple of seconds.

Vehicles are coming with ever more electronic devices and displays that can cause distraction. Lane departure, pedestrian, and drowsy driving warning systems as well as brake assistance and active cruise control save lives, but their displays and warnings can be a distraction especially to seniors. So can navigation systems, radio/CD/MP3 and cell phones that allow text-messaging.

Soon drivers will be able to surf the net and access Facebook and Twitter. Displays in electric vehicles show battery state-of-charge, remaining range and even location of charging stations. Others have displays to help drivers achieve greater fuel economy.

Talking on cell phones and texting while driving is already being addressed with 35 states and the District of Columbia already banning texting while driving. Nine states and D.C. ban hand-held cell phones except for emergencies.

Now, the feds are addressing distraction from communications, entertainment, navigation and other electronic devices. NHTSA recently proposed guidelines, now voluntary, that cover manufacturer-installed devices that require drivers to look at a device, hand manipulate a control or watch for visual feedback. Guidelines include recommendations to limit complexity and task length, limit operation to one hand, limit off-road glances to under two seconds, limit unnecessary information in the field of view, and limit number of manual inputs required.

The proposed guidelines also recommend disabling the ability to disable some device when the vehicle is in motion. This includes the ability to browse the Internet, text message, access social media, make navigation system entries, dial a phone or view a display of over 30 text characters unrelated to driving.

NHTSA is also considering future guidelines for systems brought into the vehicle and used while driving. These would include portable navigation systems, smartphones, electronic tablets and other mobile communications devices. A third set of proposed guidelines could address voice-activated controls in aftermarket and portable devices

It could be years before these recommended improvements appear in cars in dealer showrooms. Also since many seniors buy pre-owned vehicles – even more years before they are found in vehicles seniors actually drive. Even then, vehicles will still be designed for younger buyers who have grown up with multitasking, computers and smartphones and texting, and want all the electronic bells and whistles. There is an adage in the automobile industry: "you can sell a young person's car to an old person, but you can't sell an old person's car to a young person."

The bottom line is that seniors will have to learn how to safely drive what some are calling computers with wheels. Here are some tips:

  • If you purchase a new vehicle, plan on spending the amount of time needed to read the owners manual and learn how to use all systems. Unfortunately, the learning curve can be steep and the manual isn't exactly light reading. You might elicit the help of a computer- or car-savvy relative, friend or neighbor to help you. If you have a grandson or granddaughter who, like most, plays video games and uses a smartphone, ask for their help. Some dealers, especially those selling upscale models, offer a course or will have someone to help familiarize you with your new vehicle.
  • Spend time learning the location and use of controls including those on the steering wheel so you can find and operate them without taking your eyes off the road.
  • Especially learn about any warning lights or sounds that might be activated while driving. Otherwise you could be startled and distracted by a light that suddenly starts glowing or a chime that sounds when driving.
  • Don't use a cell phone, even a voice-activated one, while driving. Pull over and stop before using. (Remember when you had to find a pay phone, park and get out, and find a quarter (maybe just a dime) if you wanted to make a call? )
  • Never text message while driving. Texting on a cell phone is 23 times riskier than just talking.
  • If you have a navigation system, put in destinations – including stops -- before starting out. If you need to make changes or have to confirm your location, pull over and stop, just like you probably did when you used paper maps. Rely on voice commands rather than try to watch the display, which is often difficult because of glare from the sun. If you have a passenger, turn over the navigation task to them.
  • If you rent a car, spend some time familiarizing yourself with controls and displays before driving off.

Meet Bill




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