Driven A new car lately? Backing out, the car beeps to warn a pedestrian walking by. A dashboard light illuminates if the vehicle ahead is too close. A side mirror light flashes, signalling a truck behind you in the blind spot – not a good moment to pass. And if the car senses you're drowsy or driving erratically, a chime sounds an alert.
Resembling computers on wheels, many of the latest vehicles are loaded with sensors, lasers, cameras and crash warning systems that alert drivers to blind spots and impending collisions, or when they're drifting too far out of their lane. If the driver fails to respond, some models assume control and apply the brakes. Other options assist with the pesky chore of parallel parking or maintain a safe distance between vehicles.
The aim of all the bells and whistles is, of course, safety.
But how much is too much? Governments, the auto industry and the research community are debating the potential for driver distraction from too many chimes, beeps, computerised voices, vibrating steering wheels and lights flashing on dashboards, windshields or side mirrors.
"If a three-inch light on your dashboard illuminates because you're too close to the car in front, you may look down at the dashboard first," says Bryan Reimer, a research scientist who studies human-machine interface at MIT's AgeLab.
Lack of standardisation in today's sophisticated technology also ramps up the potential for distraction, says Reimer. "Every manufacturer's system is different – and nobody gets any training before they get behind the wheel."
Officials have chastised automakers for designing cars that enable radios, cellphones, navigation systems and other devices to run smoothly in the car. Any activity – applying mascara, reading a map or talking on a cellphone – is distracting, says Amy Ship, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. There is evidence, she says, that using a cellphone may be as risky as driving drunk.
Ship routinely asks her patients if they use a cellphone while driving – even hands-free systems. "If the patient doesn't seem to understand the risk, I might ask, `How would you feel if your surgeon were operating on you while he's talking on a hands-free phone?"'
The automobile industry is pouring out new technologies, many borrowed from the military and the aeronautical industry, faster than researchers can evaluate them, say researchers. If you don't want all the bells and whistles, you can make your driving experience safer with simple, affordable fixes, including panoramic rearview mirrors, turn signal amplifiers, pedal extenders, seat belt extenders, even a seat cushion.
And just over the horizon, experts say, are cars equipped with medical monitoring devices to check the driver's heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar. Even more promising are cars that use wireless communication to "talk" to each other and to roadside signals to prevent collisions.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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