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Unexpected curse of power steering

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POSTED April 29, 2014 1:03 a.m.

Has driving become too easy?

There is little doubt that innovations such as seat belts, reinforced crash cages, crumple zones, air bags, bumpers designed to absorb energy from crashes, stronger metal alloys, and modern-day technology such as parking assistance have made driving safer.

But have things such as power steering, automatic transmissions, and even power windows by the mere fact they have made basic elements of driving significantly easier contributed to a cavalier attitude when we climb behind the wheel?

It is true that power steering and automatic transmission made driving safer by requiring less physical effort and the need to anticipate basic situations such as when to shift. But at the same time those innovations have allowed us to concentrate less and less on driving.

Those who learned to drive in an era when power steering was a novelty attest to the fact it was difficult at best to do much more than drive when you were behind a wheel. Cars, for want of a better analogy, drove like tanks.

You didn’t need a health club membership to build upper body strength. All you had to do was drive to the store.

Both hands had to be on the steering wheel. You had to worry about control of the vehicle every time you did something other than drive such as turn the channel on new-fangled options such as AM radios.

As for manual transmissions, try to drive one and text at the same time let alone use a cell phone.

Ironically, all the innovations that automakers have made from push-button radios to ones that are voice activated to the placement of turn signals and even wiper controls have been made with the intent to reduce driver distractions. 

But people being people have found ways to negate the safety enhancements that such placement of controls as well as power steering and automatic transmissions have afforded.

What engineer for the Big Three or that of other global auto manufacturers would have thought power steering and automatic transmissions would have encouraged people to comb their hair, read newspapers, and even shave or do makeup while driving? All such driver behavior has been routinely documented.

Texting would have been impossible to do while driving in 1950. Not because the technology didn’t exist then but because it would have been physically impossible to do while driving without power steering.

The increasing menace of distracted driving has basically wiped out any gains made in safety from many driving innovations.

Cars have become rolling offices and places to do things that drivers once had to do before they put their keys in the ignition.

So what’s the answer – making cars even more idiot proof through driverless technology?

That might sound logical if it wasn’t for that nasty phenomenon known as unintended consequences.

Aside from programming issues such as how does a computer distinguish between a cat and a small child dashing in front of the car and how it reacts when there is oncoming traffic, a car to the right, and a car right on your tail in such a situation, what about human error both in programming and the person “driving” the car?

Google and others have noted driverless technology at one point will always require a driver to physically take over. But if the driver is distracted from reading an e-book, napping, texting or lord knows what and fails to heed the warning alarms quick enough to retake the controls, what happens?

We are assured warnings will be loud enough that it would be hard for drivers to ignore. But what happens when they don’t respond? 

Virtually every innovation to make driving easier and less stressful has resulted in many drivers paying less attention to driving.

Technology such as what Apple is rolling to block the texting function of phones while driving and even driverless technology will do no good until drivers understand one thing – driving requires your full attention. 

If safety technology makes it easier for you to take your eyes off the road and search for a cellphone or to text instead of keeping tabs on cars barreling down on you and other things such as pedestrians, bicyclists and debris in the road, then driving becomes less safe.

Pure accidents, per se, are extremely rare. Crashes happen either through inattentive driving, negligent operation such as  speeding and unsafe lane changes to following too close to driving too fast for conditions. Even mechanical issues are rarely accidental since most involve motorists who have failed to perform routine maintenance or take care of problems that are easily detectable when you drive such as steering difficulties and deteriorating brakes. The fact you don’t fix it isn’t an accident. You chose to ignore it for whatever reason.

Yet we all take great comfort in calling crashes “accidents” as it gets us off the hook. It’s telling yourself that you couldn’t have avoided it from happening as it was just an accident. In reality, virtually everything that we define as an accident is avoidable. And in most cases would never have happened if drivers were paying attention to driving.

 

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209.249.3519.

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