Our Cars Are Getting Better; Our Driving Is Getting Worse

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Your car is as safe as it’s ever been. Every vehicle on the road is a miracle of ultra-high strength materials and impressive computing power, working together to protect you like a cocoon as you drive.

Today’s cars are so safe that recent research found that in Great Britain, no driver or passenger had been killed in a Volvo XC90 SUV since it came out in 2002.

So why have road deaths in the US increased in each of the past three years? And why does The Zebra’s latest state of auto insurance report show that car insurance rates have hit an all-time high, up 20% since 2011?
The answer isn’t engineering. It’s psychology.

For today’s drivers, it’s PEBSWAS: Problem Exists Between Steering Wheel and Seat. We’re the ones holding safe driving back.

The Weak Link

In the early days of the Internet, customer support workers developed an acronym, PEBKAC, which stood for Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair. It was shorthand for user error. There was nothing wrong with the computer; it was the user who was clueless.

In today’s driving environment, that acronym could be modified to PEBSWAS: Problem Exists Between Steering Wheel and Seat. We have found the weak link in the chain, and it is us.

Maybe not you, exactly, but certainly that guy ahead of you who’s texting and driving, or the woman who just ran that red light while hurrying to get to work.

Don’t take it so hard. It’s not entirely our fault. Cars have only been around for about 150 years, not nearly long enough for our brains to develop a healthy evolutionary fear of them. After hundreds of thousands of years, we’re instinctively scared of heights, and snakes, and bears, but we’re not yet scared of cars.

After hundreds of thousands of years, we are instinctively scared of heights, and snakes, and bears, but we are not yet scared of cars.

A long-running MIT study on distracted driving has turned up countless scenes of eating, drinking, grooming, button-pushing and more from drivers — who knew they were being filmed. Here, the driver sips coffee while also driving hands-free at 65 mph with Cadillac’s Super Cruise engaged. (Video from MIT)

Crashes: “Why Aren’t There More?”

That’s the message from Steve Casner, whose book, “Careful: A User’s Guide to Our Injury-Prone Minds,” details the psychological traps that keep us from being more careful at home, at work, and behind the wheel. Casner is no Nervous Nellie. He flies jets and helicopters and studies safety as a research psychologist at NASA. When he looks at the recent rise in car crashes and fatalities he has one question: “Why aren’t there more of them?”

There’s certainly a long list of factors working against us. Casner’s book points out a few:

First, we’re terrible at assessing how risky a particular activity is. Instead of looking up verified data, we rely on what we read and watch, which is often sensationalistic.

We’re bad at paying attention. Our minds naturally wander, and we’re easily distracted. You might think that you’re doing better by using voice commands for your phone while you sit at a stoplight. But once you look up and focus on traffic again, it takes almost 30 seconds for your brain to reorient and resume processing what you’re seeing.

And we’re relentlessly positive thinkers. We naturally welcome thoughts of a positive outcome and skip the evidence in support of a negative one. Have you ever been tempted to not wear your seatbelt because you were only going a few blocks? Short trips are all intersections, and intersections are among the most common places for deadly accidents.

Studies show it takes almost 30 seconds to refocus

Technology Gets Better. We Get Worse.

Part of the problem, ironically, is that as safety technology in cars gets better, we, as drivers, may be getting worse. Studies at MIT indicate that increasing automation can make drivers overestimate their safety and feel comfortable indulging in other activities behind the wheel. According to the CDC, approximately nine people die and more than 1,000 are injured each day in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver.

One of the worst culprits in distracted driving is multitasking. MIT research scientist Bobbie Seppelt is part of one of the longest-running studies of driver attention. Beginning in 2015, Seppelt and her colleagues outfitted a set of Teslas, Volvos, and Range Rovers with cameras that tracked the driver’s head, eye, and body movements to better understand what might lead to a crash.

Seppelt also found that safe driving technology seems to affect people in two different ways. One group explored the limits of the safety systems, including taking their hands away from the wheel for extended periods. A second group stopped using the driver assistance technology altogether. They distrusted the software so much that they, in essence, declined to take advantage of those safety features.“We’re quite busy when we drive,” said Seppelt, who has seen countless scenes of eating, drinking, grooming, button-pushing and more from drivers who knew they were being filmed. “It’s about 40-60 percent of the time that we’re doing something in addition to operating the vehicle.”

Car Fatalities

While traffic deaths have been trending down since the 1970s, they saw the most significant two-year increase in more than 50 years between 2014 and 2016. Experts attributed this spike to two changes over the past decade: Drivers logging more hours on the road, and they are increasingly distracted by their smartphones and vehicle systems.


For the past decade, traffic deaths have generally been trending downward, even as the number of miles we drive continued to increase. But 2015 and 2016 brought big spikes in the number of fatalities

Where’s Our PSA for Distracted Driving?

So what can we do to conquer our lousy behavior behind the wheel? Both Seppelt and Casner agree that education is our best bet. Just as we’ve managed to make recycling cool and smoking not cool, we need public service messages and emotional videos that help us upgrade the way we think about what’s risky and what’s safe in a modern world filled with distracting gadgets and fast cars.

In the 1980s, public pressure changed our country’s attitudes toward drinking and driving. Mothers Against Drunk Driving was formed in 1980 and by 1988, every state had raised the minimum drinking age to 21.

In comparison, distracted driving has actually moved more quickly than drunk driving in gaining awareness and legislation. Since wireless companies launched the “It Can Wait” campaign in 2013, more than 27 million people have taken an online pledge to drive distraction-free. In that same time, 47 states have banned text messaging for all drivers.

But laws are difficult to enforce, and the punishments remain inconsistent. According to a 2017 study by Zendrive, which uses smartphone data to analyze driving behavior, drivers use their smartphones in nearly 9 out of every 10 trips and are on their phones for 3.5 minutes of every hour on the road. The Zebra’s 2018 Distracted Driving Report found that on average, penalties for drunk driving are 383% higher than for distracted driving.

Texting While Driving

Campaigns like It Can Wait have increased awareness that texting while driving is dangerous, but haven't done much to stop it. "We have achieved peak awareness, but what we have not achieved is peak behavior," AT&T's Ryan Luckey said. "As technology has gotten more sophisticated and engaging, the issue we're dealing with is changing behavior, and nearly 9 out of 10 people are still doing it."

We are quite busy when we drive. It is about 40-60 percent of the time that we are doing something in addition to operating the vehicle.


2014 focus group report from AT&T on the effectiveness of the It Can Wait campaign found that young people were aware of the dangers of texting and driving, but justified doing it themselves by saying they “only do it at stop lights”, “only do it in a familiar environment”, or they don’t “do it if others are in the car”.  They don’t feel compelled to stop because they’re “doing it responsibly” and “nothing bad has ever happened because of it”.

That’s why Jay Winsten, an associate dean at Harvard’s School of Public Health, suggests a different slant than drunk driving’s “designated driver” campaign. He should know. Winsten was the driving force behind getting that phrase into our national vocabulary, boosted by storylines written into top-rated TV shows like Cheers, L.A. Law, and The Cosby Show.

Earlier this year, Winsten told a Harvard conference on fighting distracted driving that rather than fight people’s misconceptions that they’re good multitaskers behind the wheel, we should promote attentive driving — scanning for surprises from other drivers — particularly in riskier spots like urban intersections.

The Zebra’s 2018 Distracted Driving Report found that on average, penalties for drunk driving are 383% higher than for distracted driving.

The Next Revolution

While we’re waiting for that societal behavior change, there are other steps that might help, too, like standardizing the names of features with more realistic descriptions. One of the most popular new systems is driver-assist technology, which automates some driving tasks and can help to quickly bring the car to a stop in emergency situations. But with names like Autopilot or ProPilot Assist, is it any wonder that people often assume this means a fully-automated ride?
Technology could lend a hand, too, using onboard cameras that watch the driver for signs of inattention or distractedness, or with adaptive information displays that remove clutter as drivers are under increasing demand to help ensure they keep their eyes on the road.

But none of those are better than spending even a few minutes talking to the dealer before you leave the lot or reading the owner’s manual to learn how your car helps keep you safe.

“The next revolution in safety,” Casner said, “has to happen in our own minds.”

The next revolution in safety has to happen in our own minds

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