Don't blame the gadgets!
By Eric Peters

There's a good bit of debate on the pros (not getting lost) and cons ( being distracted) of satellite navigation units and related in-car gadgets.

Many swear by them; some at them -- accusing these devices of making cars more dangerous by making drivers less attentive.

There's plenty of evidence in support of both positions. For example: A British insurance company, Privilege Insurance, did a study that found 19 percent of drivers who used GPS lost concentration while driving compared to 17 percent of map readers. And here in the U.S., Nationwide Auto Insurance ran a commercial showing a distracted driver who ends up driving through a coffee shop window because he relied too much on his GPS.

On the other hand, one could point to declining fatality rates and argue that if in-car electronics were so dangerous, we should have seen a noticeable uptick in both accident and fatality rates over, say, the past five years -- the time-frame when these technologies became commonplace. But we have not seen such an increase -- and much of the "evidence" is basically anecdotal ("I was almost creamed today by a guy who blew through a light and I could see him talking on his cell phone," etc.)

In the course of test driving new cars, I have found that some GPS systems are much better than others in terms of being designed for ease of use -- while some have a "Battlestar Galactica" like array of menus, buttons and "mouse inputs" that can drive a person to distraction (literally).

However, the thing that may matter most is the "human factor."

Some drivers are simply better-skilled than others -- and can handle the multi-tasking involved with using a GPS system (or cell phone) and still be more competent behind the wheel than a poor/unskilled/weak-eyed driver who has both hands on the wheel and no electronic distractions whatever.

No studies necessary; the truth of this is self-evident -- and common sensical.

The difficulty is setting regulations based on the "typical" driver and his ability (or lack thereof) to deal safely with things like cell phones and in-car GPS units. Now you're treading on the sacrosanct "right to drive" (irrespective of how poor a "driver" the person in question might be) that is as untouchable, politically, as Social Security reform or the idea of tossing the IRS into the dustbin of history. Any suggestion that driving is in fact a privilege to be earned rather than a right to be conferred is met with violent opposition -- from teens to AARPers to everyone in between.

The rest of us are caught in the middle.

If only the bar could be set just a little bit higher in terms of driver training/licensing requirements, the whole GPS/cell phone/distracted driver issue would probably become a non-issue. Because the problem we've got is not a distracted driver problem -- it's a bad driver problem.

Driver training is neither mandatory nor anything like comprehensive. We give virtually anyone who can make his way up to the DMV window and get through a Forrest Gumpian "skills" test a license -- and then scratch our heads in bewilderment at the ongoing and increasingly pervasive spectacle of drivers who can't stay in their lane, don't know how to merge safely with traffic or who "didn't see" that stop signs, red light or the soon-to-be roadkill motorcyclist in their blind spot -- because they were too focused on punching in a new destination or gabbling on their cell phones.

Or just picking their noses.

These "drivers" are already dangerous -- adding GPS, cell phones and the like just makes them even more so. Regulating the use of these gadgets, therefore, is about as effective a policy as insisting that hard-core drunks only have two or three for the road -- instead of five or six. In both cases, getting the inept/dangerous driver off the road (or back to school for some remedial training) is the proper solution.

Don't worry about the digital readouts, flat screens and buttons. They'll take cars of themselves. If we take care about who we allow to get behind the wheel.

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