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Driven to distraction by smartphones, other devices

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

More and more I see the evidence of distracted driving as a result of smartphone use: Commuting traffic is increasingly filled with cars drifting between lane-divider stripes, delaying turn-signal use, accelerating erratically and stopping several car-lengths short at a red light.

The National Safety Council reports that fatal highway crashes have increased in the past three years (it’s now around 40,000 annually), and the U.S. government’s compilation of national fatal accident statistics says phone use is listed in police reports as the second-highest reason as the cause of crashes (behind “daydreaming).”

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety funded a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which noted that using a smartphone while driving resulted in inconsistent speed and lane position. Those using touch-screen controls instead of voice controls were more prone to being distracted. It found that texting doubled the incidences of crashes.

Further, there is pressure from our increasingly connected lifestyles to add more distractions to our cars. Announcements last month from Amazon made clear the direction that company is taking to get its home personal speaker assistant, Alexa, into more cars.

Recently technology companies have been revealing their plans for 5G devices and products with far greater connection speeds and the capacity to use more complex applications. The Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor stated in a February report projecting the use of connected tech: “These 5G networks will enable a variety of commercial- and convenience-oriented applications, but it remains an open question whether or not 5G can support cooperative active safety.”

Can we drive while connected to internet applications? The American Psychological Association states that research up to 2006 has determined that hands-on or hands-free phone use “makes no difference in terms of mental distraction. Multitasking in or out of the car has been shown in many psychological experiments to divide attention and limit working memory — both essential to safe driving.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Agelab analyzed a large study of monitored drivers, and last July released a report which recognized smartphones as a significant source that prevents drivers from focusing on driving. Says engineer Bryan Reimer, who studies driver behavior at MIT, the driver doesn’t decide when to be distracted by a smartphone. “If the phone goes brring,” he was quoted, “you feel socially or emotionally compelled to respond to it.”

But phone use on the road centers around more than just having verbal conversations. Notifications from apps add to the problem.

In 2017, former Google manager Tristan Harris gained fame from a popular TED lecture and appearance on television’s “60 Minutes” by illuminating how smartphone applications keep users focused on the application by using often hidden psychological persuasion. “Outrage works really well at getting attention,” Harris, whose Google title was “design ethicist,” explains, adding that connected technology is “only accountable for getting your attention.”

Fake news, social media bias confirmation bubbles and inflammatory messaging are some of the results of this process, he adds. “There’s a hidden goal driving the direction of all of the technology we make, and that goal is the race for our attention,” says Harris.

However, Harris says a bright side is possible: “Instead of handicapping our attention, imagine if we used all of this data and all of this power and this new view of human nature to give us a superhuman ability to focus, and a superhuman ability to put our attention to where we cared about it.”

Such as driving, I hope.