Paul Gilster: We need to rethink our approach to technology in moving vehicles

CorrespondentApril 27, 2014 

Digital technology may have transformed our lives, but there are places in my life where I’d just as soon not run into it. One of them is in my car. Sure, let’s enjoy music on long trips and get better mileage from engines monitored by electronics. But putting social media into a vehicle is a recipe for disaster, and our ready acceptance of cell phone use while driving paves the way for accidents. The last place anyone should be multitasking is behind the wheel of a car.

I was thinking about all this during the lengthy wait at a left turn signal caused by a guy who couldn’t look up from his phone long enough to realize the light had changed. Three honking cars behind him weren’t enough to wake him from his trance, and when he did suddenly surface, lurching into the intersection moments after he lost the light, the rest of us were left to wait another cycle, perhaps thinking about the many problems caused by phones in cars. Or maybe not, because the woman behind me was talking on her phone.

Help, not exacerbate

What we want – constant immersion in our tools – is colliding with keeping us safe. At the very least, it’s lowering the skills and performance of countless drivers we share roads with. So I was delighted to hear that Apple is taking aim on people who text while driving. A 2013 study found that texting while driving is a greater hazard to teenagers than alcohol. In fact, the CDC has seen a sharp decline in alcohol use among teen drivers while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration say that at any given daylight moment, 100,000 drivers are texting.

Computer companies can’t control what car companies do, but they can offer devices that help rather than exacerbate the problem. Apple’s new patent deals with ways to lock out hand held devices while a car is in operation. One way to do this is for a smartphone to receive a signal from the car’s ignition system, telling it to disable texting and any other features selected.

Another possibility is to use motion detection to sense when a car is moving, at which time texting would be shut down. The exploratory patent comes at a time when major mobile carriers are running advertising campaigns highlighting the dangers of texting while driving. Bear in mind that 49 percent of commuters, according to AT&T, say they text while driving.

Reevaluate our approach

But high-tech firms need to examine their products across the board when it comes to the mobile world. Apple is also the company behind CarPlay, which was prominently displayed at the 2014 Geneva auto show in March. What you get with CarPlay is a display of iPhone apps on your car’s dashboard, operational through voice and/or touch screen commands. I’m seeing not just navigation but audio, phone and messaging apps along with third-party programs.

Sure, you can make phone calls by simply calling out a contact’s name, but is hands-free calling while driving any safer than holding your phone? The National Safety Council says that 26 percent of all crashes are tied to phone use, five times more than involve texting. Recent driver distraction studies have shown that driving while using a hands-free phone offers little improvement to driving performance. In both cases, reaction times are increased.

So while it’s great to see Apple as well as the mobile carriers moving to find solutions to texting, we really need to reevaluate our entire approach to technology in moving vehicles. A friend of mine always gets huffy at this point, telling me he is perfectly capable of using his phone safely while driving. Maybe so, but he’s sharing the road with the rest of us, many of whom, statistics show, are dangerous when distracted. We need to listen to the numbers and wise up.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service