October .28 .2013

Is Driving Today Too Easy?

Today's cars are a dream to drive. And it's not just because of power technology, like steering, windows, ABS and automatic transmissions. Carmakers are now turning to semi-autonomous technology. Adaptive cruise control ensures your car slows with traffic. Lane departure technology warns you if you've crossed the line. Some cars can actually wake you if you're nodding off at the wheel.

Modern technology means that drivers don't have to think when behind the wheel. Some get complacent. Some even get bored.

Drivers now turn to the many stimuli around us. We become increasingly distracted by cell phones, navigation systems, climate controls, and more.

A Simpler Time

Were drivers of earlier generations better equipped to focus on the road?

Ford Galaxy 64Let's take it back to the 1960s. Imagine climbing into the driver's seat of a '64 Ford Galaxy Wagon. Perhaps it's the car your parents drove with you bouncing around in the back seat. (We'll leave safety device technology like car seats out of this discussion). The Galaxy relied on a clunky manual transmission and lacked power steering, ABS, rearview sensors, and cruise control.

Driving a '64 Galaxy was a job. It took focus.

The comparison leaves some with an important question: is too much safety making drivers less safe?

The Yerkes-Dodson Law

stress_graph_smPsychologists developed a theory in the early 1900s that relates performance with workload levels. Give people a tiny workload and they become complacent. Give people a huge workload and they become overwhelmed. For top performance, people must work somewhere in the middle where manageable tasks keep them interested.

The theory can be applied to drivers. Drivers might perform badly when travelling along an empty prairie highway with cruise control set. Performance might be just as bad when negotiating a pass on the notoriously dangerous sea-to-sky highway.

Adapting to New Safety Technologies

Stanford University professor Richard Nass says the best safety systems go unnoticed. He calls them "secret" safety systems - invisible systems like anti-lock brakes that we don't think much about.

Bryan Reimer, an MIT researcher and associate director of the New England University Transportation Center, believes drivers should receive ongoing, lifetime driver training. He also says car dealerships should spend more time working with customers to fully explain the limits of safety technology before letting them off the lot.

Others take a less scientific approach. A blogger from small-town Minnesota suggests that young kids should learn to drive on old cars to appreciate the basics of driving. "I learned on a Datsun 210 with a bad clutch," he says. "Those cars didn't come with power steering, either. We felt the road."

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