Driving While Human

Our local paper recently ran the story of Edith Cameron, killed in a car crash on a road we sometimes use. We anxiously scanned the column looking for that something that one of the drivers involved must have done wrong—the thing that we surely would never do, like hit the road without a seatbelt or after downing a few beers.

It turns out the person driving the car that hit Edith ran a red light. But knowing why Edith died should provide cold comfort: even when we drive with care and precision, cars are far more dangerous machines than we normally give them credit for. Since most Americans use cars with far greater frequency than they use other dangerous equipment, cars put most of us at higher risk of death or maiming than anything else.

Are fancy electronic distractions on dashboards really a good idea? Photo: Redmond Pie

You can engineer cars to be safer, but the safest way to engineer our communities is to make cars less necessary. This is because driving without error is impossible, and the tiniest error made in a car, even one with the latest safety devices, can have devastating consequences.

Until a recent drop in fatal crashes in the US—in good part the result of a recession-induced reduction in vehicle miles driven—the annual death toll had been holding stubbornly at roughly 40,000. Even now, each day about one hundred people die and each year thousands are brain-damaged and wheelchair-bound after being hit by a car, in a car, or both.

Of course, this isn’t to say that many vehicles and roads aren’t safer today, given innovations like air bags and electronic stability control, developments in highway design, and heroic efforts to put an end to driving under the influence.

Still, individually we may not be much safer. For one thing, people tend to take more risks, like speeding and texting, when made more confident by better-braking cars and newly-widened roads. And much of the risk reduction these improvements provide is erased if we drive more miles, something likely as the economy rebounds. Besides, safety technology has just barely kept pace with technology that provides yet more distractions. (This year’s offering? A front seat infotainment system that can find movie listings, tag songs, hold your restaurant table, and provide a hot spot for five laptops).

The media and automakers, however, persist in holding out the promise that cars will someday drive themselves, eliminating human error, or be so engineered that drivers will walk away from crashes unscathed. To enter any of this season’s auto shows is to step into this imagined future. Vehicles that park themselves or alert the driver when a vehicle sits in the blind spot are already available. But the idea that a car system free from danger is around the bend is, unfortunately, a pipe dream.

It seems like it should be more than a dream. After all, American technological progress is the guiding hand of our history, giving us moon walks and internet surfs. But here’s the rub: vehicles of the future will still need humans to build them. In 2010—the future dreamed of by the drivers of decades past—vehicle recalls spiked above 20 million, the third-highest since recordkeeping began.

And even if we do get cars that “talk” to each other and warn of an impending crash and “road trains” that speed traffic along highways, we won’t unseat the drivers. And in all our fallibility, even if we do not drink and drive or text and drive, we will continue to drive while distracted by a passenger or a roadside attraction; drive while tired or in a hurry in our overscheduled lives; drive while none-of-the-above but still not in full cognitive or physical control of our cars or environment. In other words, we will continue to drive while human.

Influence makers including Oprah and DOT head Ray LaHood are campaigning against distracted driving, which contributed to an estimated 5,474 deaths and 448,000 injuries in 2009. These efforts, like the enormously influential campaign against drunk driving in the eighties, are invaluable. But we also need reminding that driving under any conditions remains an inherently dangerous act.

Focus on the driver, however useful, often has left the car with the image of a neutral tool. Cars are even celebrated as the savior in many a crash story and car ad (“My Subaru saved my life!” goes one successful campaign).)

If we focused on the car itself, we might ask automakers to stop playing the hero by trumpeting their enhanced safety features while they cram their vehicles full of electronic distractions. We might ask the industry to stop running ads featuring racing when excessive speed factors into nearly a third of all fatal crashes. We might require vehicle technology that caps top speeds. And we might question the necessity of some of our car trips or of handing our teens the car keys quite so early.

Though not as exciting as visions of vehicles hovering above highways, the most effective way we now have to protect our families from crash risk is to drive less.

Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist at Brown University’s Watson Institute, and Anne Lutz Fernandez, a former marketer and banker, are the authors of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives (Palgrave Macmillan).