Is technology the cause of car crashes? Or the cure?

The conventional wisdom says smartphones cause deadly car accidents, and Google Glass is already getting banned. But what are the facts?

I totalled my car when I was 16.

Here's what happened: It was the middle of the day, and I was listening to the car radio while driving. I started fiddling with the radio while I headed toward an intersection with a green light. The second I looked down at the radio, the light changed. By the time I looked up, I was sailing into the intersection. My car smashed into a brand-new Cadillac crossing from my right. Upon impact, both cars slid toward a corner, pinning a third car against the curb.

I was lucky. Nobody was hurt. Insurance paid for everything. But I learned a lesson that would keep me from ever getting into another car accident: Distracted drivers are dangerous.

So let's ban gadgets for drivers, right?

Movie maker Werner Herzog made a documentary about the dangers of texting while driving called From One Second to the Next. In the film, Werner cites the National Safety Council's figure that texting while driving causes 100,000 accidents per year.

For that claim to be true, it would also have to be true that 100,000 accidents have been added to the total number of accidents that have occurred for other reasons. Looking from that perspective, it's a harder argument to make -- since 1996, accident rates in the U.S. have gone down from one year to the next every year except two.

So as first mobile phone use and then texting on mobile phones grew more common, the number of accidents in the United States went down. Where are those extra 100,000 accidents? They're hard to find in the overall statistics.

It seems possible to me that it's the distracted drivers (like the 16-year-old me) that cause accidents; the accidents are not caused by whatever object it is that distracts those drivers. In other words, yes: Distraction by text messaging causes accidents, but those same distracted drivers would probably find something else to be distracted by if they weren't texting.

I've seen people texting while driving. But I've also seen people reading the newspaper, putting on makeup, eating food, poking at GPS devices, arguing with passengers, reaching into the back seat to interact with children, lighting cigarettes and so on.

Drivers who do those things are careless about attention, don't understand the risks or simply don't care.

I think making laws that minimize accidents caused by distracted drivers is a good idea. However, I'm bothered by an obvious bias against technology. It seems like the more advanced the technology, the stronger the bias. And this bias itself might be dangerous.

More advanced technology might very well help to reduce distraction-related car accidents.

The fervor to criminalize Google Glass

The most advanced technology I use is Google Glass. It's so advanced that it doesn't even exist yet, at least as a generally available consumer product.

Various people with anti-technology biases can't wait to ban Glass for drivers. For example, it has already been formally banned in the U.K. And just this week, a woman in San Diego named Cecilia Abadie was ticketed for wearing Google Glass while driving. (She was also ticketed for speeding.)

The cop didn't make up a law against wearing Glass. He cited her for a real law that essentially makes illegal the use of any kind of video screen while driving. (Abadie claims that she wasn't using such a screen -- that Glass was off.)

I can't know the particulars. And neither can the police officer. It's almost certain that he doesn't actually know whether her Glass screen was on or not. It's far more likely that he pulled her over, saw Glass, experienced a moment of what journalist and professor Jeff Jarvis calls "techno panic" and cited her for being distracted by her advanced technology.

My beef is with the bias against technology. If looking at a screen is illegal, why not cite every driver using a GPS?

And why is the law biased against "screens"? How are digital displays more distracting than analog knobs, buttons and controls?

And why are electronically-based distractions banned while non-electronic ones are not?

Let's say there's an accident and police find in the wreckage a newspaper, a radio, a GPS device, a passenger, a half-eaten sandwich and a smartphone with a recent incoming text. They'll probably attribute the cause of the accident to texting while driving, for no other reason than a bias against technology.

A surprising discovery

Remember the "hang up and drive!" movement, with associated bumper stickers? Before texting was as popular as it is now, everyone was apoplectic about the distraction caused by talking on mobile phones.

However, a study conducted by the Carnegie Mellon University and the London School of Economics analyzed more than 8 million car accidents and road fatalities of all kinds, looking for (among other things) correlations between drivers talking on mobile phones and the accidents. To their surprise, they found no correlation. When the number of phone calls went up, for example, the number of car accidents did not go up.

This study suggests that it's possible that our assumptions about technology may be wrong. And the impulse to ban super advanced technology, such as Google Glass, may be wrong as well.

What if Google Glass is the solution?

The U.K. ban on Glass was enacted without evidence or study -- in fact, to the best of my knowledge, without a single report of Glass causing a single accident. Meanwhile, the distractions I listed earlier are known to have caused fatal car crashes, yet they remain perfectly legal.

In this argument, Google Glass is a surrogate for two broad categories of technologies that will soon be widely used: wearable computing devices and heads-up displays.

Within three years, millions of people will be using wearable computers -- mostly smartwatches -- while they drive. Many people will want to wear Google Glass, as well.

Cars will increasingly get heads-up displays, where car and contextual data -- including data fed from driver's smartphone about texts and other notifications -- will appear not on the dash, but overlaid on the edges of the windshield itself. Some luxury cars already have this.

These heads-up displays are better because they're less distracting; you can be perceive them with your peripheral vision, rather than having to take your eyes off the road to look at them. Or even if you do actually glance at the display, the distance your eyes travel is shorter than it would be with other technologies, so the road remains in your peripheral vision while you take note of the information.

And this is precisely the argument for why a driver wearing Google Glass may be safer than one who isn't wearing it. Glass doesn't cover the eyes. Worn while driving, the display is significantly higher than, say, the rearview mirror. Your vision is unobstructed and, unlike a mirror, Glass can be moved with a simple movement of your head.

Google Glass information is hypersimplified and short, and you can perceive it either without taking your eyes off the road or with a glance that's quicker than, say, reaching down and looking at the phone on the passenger seat, as millions of people now do every day.

That might be true of a smartwatch, too. With your hands at the 10 and 2 positions on the steering wheel and your eyes on the road, you could mentally register an incoming alert to the watch with a tiny turn of your wrist and a half-second glance. If this action replaces fumbling for a phone, picking it up, sliding on the screen and looking down at it, then the world might be a safer place.

Advanced technologies like high-end smartphones, Google Glass and smartwatches can also know you're driving, and behave accordingly.

My Moto X smartphone, for example, auto-switches to voice mode for some notifications when it detects I'm in the car. If I get a text in the car, the phone asks whether I want it to read the message aloud. If I do, I can just say "send text" and the phone will reply with a message from me telling the other person that I'm driving and I'll contact them later.

It's almost certain that wearable technologies will do this, too.

Even more than that, they will probably be able to alert drivers to obstructions ahead and other hazards. Overall, they may reduce distractions and improve safety.

So let's all resist the urge to ban new distractions because they're new. Let's keep an open mind, and base laws on fact and reason, rather than bias and techno panic. It's very likely that drivers careless enough to be distracted are the root cause of accidents blamed on texting while driving.

The best solution would be to invent a better driver. (Google's working on that, too.) But in the meantime, let's consider the possibility of a better distraction.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him on Google+. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

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