Risky Business: Technology In Cars

Technology in modern cars encourages connectivity, yet driver deaths are on the rise in America due, in part, to drivers using their phones while driving. Road users, employees and employers alike should be concerned.

I toyed with the idea of making a phonecall recently, while at the wheel. No hands-free, no paired phone – just picking up the mobile, entering a number manually and conducting a conversation while piloting my Honda saloon at 70mph. Dangerous? Yes, it’s why I didn’t do it in the end. But also the reason I nearly did.

At the time I was following a car down the M62 and watching it weave back and forth across the lanes. I could see the driver’s silhouette and make out, quite clearly, that he had a phone pressed to the side of his head. So I considered calling the police and, in doing so, breaking the law and diminishing my own attention. Quite the modern dilemma.

I write this because, as so often happens in life, a series of coincidences focus the mind on a specific issue, magnifying it through unconnected events. A friend of mine described nearly being broadsided by a man using his mobile phone while her toddler was in the back seat. She was shaken by how the casual choice of a complete stranger had put her life – and that of her infant son – in danger.

A series of press cars I’ve reviewed recently have all featured touchscreen access. This has the positive effect on streamlining dashboards, but the downside is that it’s impossible to gauge whether you’re pressing the right button without tactile feedback. With physical knobs and rocker switches you don’t have to look. I long for their return to the car dash.

And with the array of technology at our disposal in new cars – from phones and music to satnav, climate control and even live television – it can seem as if our cars are actively trying to draw our attention away from the road. A former colleague of mine once told of an old boss who insisted he was able to write communications, read emails and pore over spreadsheets while at the wheel and didn’t see any reason why his employees couldn’t do the same: If your car is a mobile office why shouldn’t we work while driving?

The reason, for any sane individual, should be obvious and there’s a wealth of statistical data on what any sort of distraction – fumbling for a CD, taking a swig of coffee or changing the radio station – can do to your attention. Take a phonecall and your risk of causing an accident increases between 20-40%.

There’s worse – statistically there’s no meaningful improvement if you’re using a hands-free kit or on-board telephony. Reaction times are slower, control diminished and braking exaggerated by sudden, panicked stabbing at the pedal. Reaction times are 30% slower on hands-free than when driving at the legal alcohol limit; they’re 50% slower than driving under normal conditions. Sending a text makes you 23 times more likely to crash. The US National Safety Council says that 2015 and 2016 have been seen road deaths increase and partly blame younger drivers for using social media while at the wheel.

These are shocking, frightening statistics, yet I see people driving while talking on the phone all the time. There are many reasons: it’s become normalised to use the phone whenever we want – regardless of how unwise or impolite it may be. As safety in cars has increased we’ve partly mitigated those safety advances by taking more risks; the safer we feel, the more dangerous our driving becomes. While we transition to self-driving cars this danger will become acute; unfamiliarity with new technology, a heightened sense of false security and the demands of our personal communication devices will pose difficult and dangerous questions as we move from one paradigm of driving to another.

The endless demands on our attention – from work and family and the very apps meant to make our lives easier – can give us the impression we have to be ‘on’ at every moment of the day. For some it’s a fatal misapprehension.

In the UK road deaths have been falling for decades thanks to improved car safety and aggressive public campaigns. But in the States they’re on the rise – and driver distraction is being blamed. It should come as no surprise that in the litigation centre of the world there’s currently a lawsuit against Apple as a result of such tragedies.

What may surprise is that Apple has been able to stop people using their phones while driving for years, according to patents filed almost a decade ago. That fact has resulted in a lawsuit in the USA against the tech giant following a tragic accident, caused by a driver checking her iPhone, that resulted in two deaths and a child being paralysed.

Just who is responsible for a road death caused by a driver using a mobile phone at the wheel? It’s a complex issue that, legally speaking, goes well beyond the person causing the accident. Tech giants may be in the sights, but so to may employers.

A company car is considered to be a place of work and an employer considered to be “vicariously liable” for the acts of an employee. Should an employee cause injury or death negligently by driving recklessly or excessive speed it is the driver’s responsibility. But if the employee was speeding to get to a meeting on time both employer and employee could be prosecuted.

It’s one of the troubling dichotomies of modern life. We’ve made it easier to easier to access entertainment and be connected in our cars – the things fleet managers and business users actually seek out. Yet using these devices may not be simply be inadvisable or simply illegal. Reach for a phone or accessing a hands-free could be the last thing your employee ever does. But that may just be the start of your problems.

My Q1 2017 column for Professional Manager Magazine