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A Quick Note on The Summit

I’ve not had a chance to catch everything, but John Lee’s testimony yesterday was a high point for me — and not just because he’s in Traffic. I never thought I’d hear William James’ name show up in government testimony, and another front, one idea that intrigued me in his presentation was not just the idea that there’s temporary distraction (eyes off road time, fumbling for an object), or cognitive distraction (e.g, a cell-phone conversation), but this more meta-level distraction in which one’s role as a driver is essentially “distracted,” into some other role — busy office worker, mother tending to children in back seat, diner in mobile kitchen — which subverts what should be the most most primary role, driver (which is a job title in itself, after all). It also reminds me of something Andrew Pearce from the Global Road Safety Partnership mentioned to me, which is the different ways, through training and culture and mission, drivers and pilots address their task:

a.) The primary thought in the mind of most people who get in a car and drive it is the objective of getting to the other end of the journey.

b.) The primary thought in the mind of a pilot is getting his passengers safely off the ground and back to land.

The idea is to make a.) more like b.), with drivers considering not only the safety of their own passengers, but as fellow road users as “passengers” of a sort.

Some people are thinking this way, of course: The NTSB, appropriately, recently announced a total mobile device ban for employees using government cars; its administrator, Deborah Hersman, interestingly invoked the concept of the “sterile cockpit,” which prohibits non-mission critical conversation and activity during the most sensitive flight times. This reminds me in turn of something I heard while out at Stanford a couple weeks back, talking to Clifford Nass. He noted that someone had asked him something about multitasking in the context of Capt. “Sully” and his heroic river landing. Well clearly that shows that people can do multiple things at once, even in extreme situations. Yes, sort of, but of course, everything he was doing was integrally related to the process of landing that craft. He wasn’t phoning his wife to see what he needed at the store or trying to find just the right music on his iPod for an emergency water-borne landing.

As someone mentioned at the summit yesterday, there’s probably not the political will or even the money to train drivers with the same rigor as pilots, but I’m not just talking skills here, I’m talking about the whole idea of the culture of safety, which drivers seem to so easily disregard (and government reflects in, for example, its extreme reluctance to take away one’s license, even in the face of multiple serious infractions). In story after story I keep reading the same stock quotes from people, “we lead busy lives,” “there’s more pressure than ever before,” blah, blah, blah. Guess what, we all lead busy lives — but not all of us take it out on those around us in traffic with our negligence — and in fact they might feel less busy if one didn’t feel the need to text and talk their way home through a long commute. I’ll close with a few relevant thoughts I had on Dalton Conley’s book Elsewhere U.S.A.:

Why should such free-floating anxiety exist among people in seemingly comfortable positions? One hears of executives being constantly uprooted in a job market rife with downsizing. Parents worry that their careers are not allowing them to spend enough time with their children. No one feels as if they have any time. But Conley points out that the facts tell a different story: Fewer Americans moved in 2000 than did in 1950. The percentage of people logging more than ten years with large firms has increased. This generation of fathers, he observes, “spends more time with their children than any in recent history.” As for the time squeeze, a study has found that higher-income women, even when they work the same number of hours as those earning less, report feeling more pressed for time. As Conley notes, “when you can earn more per hour, the opportunity cost of not working feels greater and the pressure is all the more intense.”

The frenetic, self-regulating regimen of one’s inner time manager is the chief culprit, Conley argues, in the forever-harried state of postindustrial labor. For the first time in history, the more people are paid, the more they feel they must work. Income inequality has risen absolutely, but particularly within the upper echelons of the professional classes. “From any link in the chain,” he writes, “it looks like everyone else is rushing away.” So the presumed leisure time that money might buy merely breeds anxiety over how much the moment is costing.

This anxiety is all but inscribed into the software of devices such as the BlackBerry, the info-status accessory par excellence for this generation of knowledge workers. Whether the device, which corrodes the boundary between work and leisure, makes one more productive is open for debate; the science writer Stefan Klein has noted that “when we are under stress, we are no longer able to filter out unimportant matters; we become scatterbrained, flighty and reckless.” So cue the BlackBerry users, working the digital age’s own set of worry beads. “We tell ourselves that the stress comes from a lack of time, even though it is really just the other way around,” Klein observes. “We are not stressed because we have no time; rather, we have no time because we are stressed.”

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This entry was posted on Thursday, October 1st, 2009 at 12:06 pm and is filed under Traffic Culture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Responses to “A Quick Note on The Summit”

  1. Dave Says:

    Fantastic post. I especially like the comparison of driving to flying, and the differences in attitude. I would liken the attitude of cyclists to pilots, in that we are primarily concerned with getting where we’re going safely, rather than quickly. In flying, the speed of the journey is a given. It’s fast. In cycling, the speed of the journey is also a given. It’s slow. In both cases, with speed out of consideration, the focus can then be placed on safety. In driving, the speed of a journey (even through city streets where stop lights are the great equalizer, and “hurry up and wait” seems the norm) is controlled (if only illusory) and thus paramount, and considered at the expense of safety.

    Additionally, I liked the idea that we should view all other road users as passengers. It’ll be a huge cultural shift to see that happen, given the territoriality so many treat their cars with. it’s a cultural shift I’d like to see, both as a cyclist and a driver. We’re all in this together after all, and as I like to say, every time we place ourselves out on the road, we’re placing our lives beneath the wheels of everyone else out there.

    Conley appears to expound on the concept of control, and our need for it. Anxiety, and thus lack of focus, in large part stems from a sense of lacking control, and being unable to accept it.

    Then again, I’m just trying to get where I need to go…

  2. Brent Says:

    “There’s probably not the political will or even the money to train drivers with the same rigor as pilots…”

    Couldn’t we at least require better initial training?

    As Top Gear pointed out a couple of seasons back, an old saying in auto racing circles goes, “If you want to win, hire a Finn.” And as it turns out, these skills may start from the required comprehensive training to get a license:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fy8LJx71_9o

  3. TomL Says:

    Manual transmissions.

    It’s very, very difficult to use a cellphone (let alone a smartphone), PDA, notebook, eat a meal, do personal grooming or nearly any other activity, while trying to drive a stick shift in stop-and-go traffic.

    Been there and done that.

  4. Ed Hillsman Says:

    Two comments. First, I agree with Dave and his comments about viewing other people using the road as fellow passengers. But it might not be as big a cultural shift if done right. Perhaps recast it in the context of religious teachings to treat others as you want to be treated. If they think about it, doesn’t everyone want others to watch out for them, to avoid doing them harm? What parent doesn’t want other drivers to drive safely around his/her child, whether the child is a passenger in a car, or walking to school? It’s not just Christianity that would say “therefore, do likewise.” So, what if there were an effort to involve the clergy in getting people to think about what they want, what they are doing, and pay more attention to how they drive?

    Second, I would add to Brent’s point. I was amazed when I moved to Florida a year ago, at the age of 58, and found no requirements for getting a Florida driver’s license other than a simple vision test and some paperwork. When I moved to Washington state ten years ago, I had to take a written test. I don’t know what the requirements are to get an initial driver’s license in Florida, but the state does not make an effort to remind people about the basic rules of the road. This may have something to do with why people here drive more aggressively than anywhere I’ve lived in the US.

  5. Tim Burrows Says:

    Ed eluded to the religious teachings to, “…treat others as you want to be treated.”

    I wrote an article in August on just that topic, http://trafficservicestps.blogspot.com/2009/08/golden-rule-road-user-style.html

    As much as we would like government to institute more rigorous driver training and create a better class of driver, resources will limit the speed at which that will happen.

    As responsible parents, we can start by ensuring our children take advanced driving courses that will help to establish better skills but most importantly teach safety first by leading with our actions. We are all busy, we are all stressed and we all have 24 hours in a day. When we put a priority on safety and responsible choices it teaches our children that is the way it is supposed to be.

  6. aaron Says:

    Driver’s should only be alert when pulling out of their driveway and into parking lots?

  7. David Armitage Says:

    I don’t believe that more training or better licensing is going materially affect the pandemic of distracted driving that has gotten so much worse in recent years. The problem, in my opinion, is that there is no feedback loop. Distracted drivers generate LOTS of little precursors BEFORE they get in a crash. The problem is that they are not confronted with the evidence of their risky behavior until its too late! No correlation takes place in the mind of the typical distracted driver that says “little late on that braking event = elevated risk of crash”. Drivers may be so busy texting they don’t even register that they had another ‘event’.

    We spent the past two years quantifying driving behavior with accelerometers, GPS chips, and torrents of other data feeds. Then we started emailing hundreds of drivers weekly ‘scorecards’ that detailed the nuances of their driving patterns. We didn’t know if it would have any effect. Everyone knows smoking will kill you, but millions still do it.

    The results were staggering. In no time typical drivers dramatically dropped the number of hard braking events they were generating, the amount of speeding they did, and reduced unnecessary jack rabbit starts. I can tell you that quantifiably there is an enormous impact on driving behavior when someone uses their cell phone while they drive. And I can also tell you that most of us are not even aware of it.

    I’d suggest that the most powerful tool we have at our disposal to address distracted driving is a ‘scorecard’. If you have a score of 67, and you are generating three times as many hard braking events as an ‘average’ driver, don’t you think you might ask why? And if you are the parent of that kid, don’t you think you might ask why?

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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