I’ve been following with great interest the driven to distraction series of articles over at the New Yorke Times. Personally I’m pleased to see them getting prominent placement on the paper’s web site, since this seems like a serious issue.
Not driving a great deal myself, I typically avoid using my BlackBerry on the rare occasion that I get a ZipCar to do some shopping or run an errand. Since I drive rarely — which means both that I enjoy it more but also am aware that I’m less practiced than many other drivers — I find it less of a hassle to focus on the road while doing so.
I have spent several stints out in the Seattle area working at either Microsoft or Microsoft Research. Both times I lived in Capitol Hill, a nice neighborhood on what Seattle natives call “the west side.” Commuting to “the east side” — where the Microsoft campus is located — is a nightmare, with a 15-minute trip sans traffic ballooning to several hours. The situation is largely the result of a paucity of bridges crossing Lake Washington, the long, narrow, deep lake that divides the east and west sides. In particular, the Evergreen Point floating bridge most convenient for getting to Microsoft collapses an eight-lane freeway into four, with no breakdown lane. Accidents on the bridge snarl traffic for hours.
Personally, I hate traffic. Hate it hate it hate it. This is partially, I’ll admit, a function of never having to get used to it, but I hope I never will. That said, an important point that I haven’t seen made[1. To be fair, I haven't perused the article comment threads yet.] about the prevalence of mobile device use in traffic is that a lot of people spend a lot of time on the road moving very, very slowly. Is texting while driving safe? I don’t believe so. But it’s probably safer when you’re stuck on the 520 bridge, creeping across the lake at 2 mph. It’s possible that people are spending more time in traffic these days, but it would be interesting to look at the amount of time they spend in various speed zones, since behavior that might be safe in bumper-to-bumper traffic might not be safe in heavy, yet swiftly-moving traffic.
Considering this for a bit I started to wonder if we’ll ever have audio interfaces that make conversations a bit more like email, i.e. more asynchronous. I can imagine that, when sitting at a stop-light or in a traffic jam, my car allowing me to participate in (potentially multiple) conversations and delivering delayed snippets of earlier dialogue to me now that it has determined that it is safe for me to hear them. Once my speed rises, conversations are muted and any responses by my conversants are cached for later delivery. Obviously this plays havoc on dialogue and flow between individuals, but maybe we adapt and develop new conversational modalities as the technology changes?
Or we could all keep texting and talking while driving and killing each other. Count me out. I’m walking or taking the metro[2. Assuming we can finally get our shit together and prevent subway operators from themselves texting and talking. How hard can this be? As a friend of mine put it yesterday on Facebook: c'mon guys, we're trying to have a civilization here.].