Driver Distractions—Yet Again

2009 Honda Element EX

Honda has just announced that it will produce a second-generation Element, even though sales of the car have been “disappointing.” Since it’s one of the ugliest cars on the road, perhaps the trend is understandable. But my beef with the car is not that it’s homely; it’s a distraction.

I mean, here’s the story. I bought my GTI in 2003 and headed up from Maryland to New York on that Thanksgiving weekend to visit my son. Big, bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Maryland Turnpike with cars following much too closely at 70+ mph, you know the scene. So to my right appears a new Honda Element in that jungle green color (the car had just launched in ’03), so “naturally” I turn for a second to look at it. And rear-end the car in front of me.

Well, no one was hurt, except for my pride and my car, no air bags deployed, and after a bad night in a motel, I went on the next day in a rented car. Cursing that Honda, of course. And finally accepting the fact that taking one’s eyes off the road for even a second or two can prove disastrous.

The incredible thing is that everyone knows the danger of cell phones and other distractions (e.g., eating, fooling with CDs and other devices, not to mention glancing at weird cars) and no one will give them up. The New York Times has been running a series on this with some really awful findings:

  • 11 percent of drivers talk on their cell phones at any given time
  • 2,600 traffic deaths per year are caused by drivers using cell phones
  • 570,000 accidents with minor or serious injuries are caused by cell-phone users
  • 50 percent of Americans think texting while driving should be punished at least as harshly as drunken driving.

All kinds of studies have established the connection between cell phone distraction and disaster. But it will take loads more traffic deaths (or maybe insurance company pressure) to get any legal action, particularly when the auto industry builds in distractions as Ford does with SYNC. Now the company is crowing about SYNCMyPhone, a new application that gives owners of Ford products the ability to create, manage and download multiple address books to their vehicles. That is so exceedingly wonderful that all should jump up and dance. Right now.

Anything that encourages and enables cell phone usage is going to sell more cars…and probably kill more people. So, as the devices get more and more complicated (the new BlackBerrys and iPhones, for instance) and encourage texting, things can only get worse. It’s surely an irony that Ford put out a video in 2007 warning about driver distractions.

Do we blame the auto companies or the public for encouraging the cell-phone madness? Let us have your opinion.

—jgoods

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