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Google Glasses Show Why It's Too Late to Ban Texting and Driving

By the end of the year, Google is expected to start selling glasses that display up-to-date information about the nearby environment on a tiny screen embedded in the lens.  

The glasses, according to the New York Times, "will have a low-resolution built-in camera that will be able to monitor the world in real time and overlay information about locations, surrounding buildings and friends who might be nearby."  

This marvel of Terminator-like technology --  expected to cost $250 to $600 -- makes the proposed ban on texting and driving that's getting kicked around Tallahassee seem antiquated. The number of distractions behind the wheel is increasing rapidly, and targeting just one aspect -- texting, for instance -- is like slapping a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

"Let's say we ban texting and driving. We can't say the job is done at that point," says Omar Ahmad, director of operations at the National Advanced Driving Simulator. "Texting and driving don't mix; they don't. But we need to see it as a step in the direction of where we continue to evaluate how technologies that make it into our cars take away or distract us from the task of driving."

Among the challenges for lawmakers is the slew and style of gadgets drivers now have at their disposal. There are apps to find the cheapest gas station, in-car navigation systems to get us there, and, soon enough, Google's glasses to let us know how the gas station ranks on Yelp. None of these technically requires the act of sending a text message, yet all distract us in their own way. 

"The cognitive-distraction aspect is not well understood yet," Ahmad says. "Our brain is not designed to multitask. We get the impression we can multitask, but it's task switching. And for the most part, the brain can switch back and forth fast enough. So the illusion is that you are multitasking. The problem is that you just haven't encountered a situation where you need that quick reaction or where you need your full mental capacity to analyze and respond. If you have that situation while you're distracted, that's where your odds of getting into a collision increase significantly. If you look at what might be in the car four years or ten years from now, phones will just be one part of it."

While lawmakers in Florida opt to rely on nonspecific reckless-driving laws, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is starting to nudge the auto industry toward less distracting cars. It has also indicated that it will provide sample texting laws that states can look to as a model. 

"We're talking less but texting much more," says Daniel McGehee, director of human factors and vehicle safety research at the University of Iowa's Public Policy Center. "The number of minutes talking in the entire cellular network is declining, versus typing elements like texting and email and Facebook, which are increasing. As a society, we're talking less but typing more." 

One upside of an explicit ban on texting and driving, according to McGehee, is that it makes drivers and passengers aware of the specific problem rather than just lumping it under the label of reckless driving. This makes drivers more aware that they're breaking the law, and it makes it easier for passengers to call out drivers who aren't paying attention. 

"It becomes very salient when we see illegal behavior," McGehee says. 

Still, it's not likely enacting laws will curb the problem. Research done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed that states with texting bans didn't fare better over time than states without bans.

John Lee, an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies distracted driving, says that laws aren't sufficient and that we need a fundamental shift in how we perceive the risks of using our phones while driving.  

"It would be interesting to know how texting parallels or doesn't parallel safety issues like seat-belt usage and drinking and driving," Lee says. "Mother's Against Drunk Driving changed the culture of driving and made it socially unacceptable to drink and drive. Something similar is going to have to happen. It needs to be culturally unacceptable to expose people to danger because you're distracted."

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Chris Sweeney

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