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Who Is Behind The Wheel?

Posted on: August 11, 2015

Swipe Left to Avoid Collision….

As a younger man, I remember my grandfather telling me about a time when he was young, and all cars had manual transmissions. Technology in the auto industry has come a long way since its inception. Automakers, incentivized by the vast need and desire for personal cars and modern technologies, have truly revolutionized the travel industry. There are few cities left in the United States where daily trips do not include the use of a passenger car. Aesthetically we have left the age of the boxy unattractive middle class cars and entered an era in which even affordable cars are sleek and attractive looking and have some level of embedded technology. The shift from the mechanical to the electronic has created a new dynamic in performance and technological innovation.

For example, cars aren’t as reliant on human skill as they have been in years past. There was a time when parallel parking in Baltimore was not for the faint of heart, but now sensors in some modern vehicles have alleviated the need for such a skill. Reverse cameras, automatic steering, cruise control, on-board Global Positioning Systems, vehicle distance sensors and the like have removed a good deal of the necessity of talented drivers. Indeed, some luxury car makers have begun selling vehicles which “self-park” with no human interaction. Others now have lane diversion warnings on complex HUD’s.

These incremental technological features are baby steps on the road to a self-driving car. And while it seems it is only a matter of time until cars are driving people to work (and not the other way around), we aren’t there just yet. For now, vehicles are still humanly operated and with increased technologies, comes increased opportunity for driver distraction.

Despite the allure of the future, we still live in a time when many collisions can be attributed to external factors interfering with or distracting a human driver. Common examples include a rowdy passenger or a tantrum-prone child that causes the driver to take their eyes off the roadway. Alcohol or drugs are another common distracting element, which influence the motor skills and decrease the reaction times and perceptive abilities of drivers.  Finally, of course, there are mobile phones, advanced music-playing devices, GPS, and DVD players, dash cams and more similar gadgets which are being operated by the driver at the same time as the motor vehicle. As a result, and as the technology shifts the emphasis away from the act of driving itself (into more passive roles for the human operators.) I’ve begun to wonder where the dangers of tomorrow will lie.

I’m imaging a self driving car traveling down the highway, linking up with a robot starbucks van so I can get my coffee on the way to work and then the two vehicles detach and go their seperate ways. Sounds like fantasy right? Let’s hope the software doesn’t malfunction. Also, if this is possible, why even GO to work? Can’t we just telecommute via the matrix?

Cyber-Security of Cars?

Jokes aside, “Cyber-security” is going to be a very relevant phenomenon.  For those of you living under a rock, “cyber-security” is a  buzzword that relates to the protection of non-tangible information that can be remotely accessed. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, along with various auto manufacturers, has recognized that remote access of technology onboard automobiles may present the opportunity for hacking and therefore the need to implement cyber security protocols. As the NHTSA recently reported, “Applied to vehicles, cybersecurity takes on an even more important role: systems and components that govern safety must be protected from malicious attacks, unauthorized access, damage, or anything else that might interfere with safety functions.” In an attempt to address and/or avoid cyber security threats in our nation’s vehicles, the NHTSA established a new branch of its administration known as the Electronic Systems Safety Research. This is a good move.

Can you imagine a remotely operated vehicle being hacked by a malicious software hacker causing it to detour from its present route, interfering with its auto breaking system and crashing it into a river? I can. Which is exactly why there will be a need for uniform safety standards across the board in automated vehicles. (Not because I can imagine it, but because it’s a real possibility.) Simply put, the way vehicles interact with maps and satellites and talk to each other, now or in the future, will need to highly secure to be safe from intrusion. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, it will be interesting to see how all this “Tech” plays out.

But Wait There’s More.

As stated above, the past few years have brought about a discussion of distracted driving and its effects on motorists’ safety. Technology has changed such that every person on the road is now accompanied by a ringing, dinging, or buzzing cell phone. Phones today have more advanced capabilities, the networks cover greater geographic areas (some cars are even equipped with wifi), and people have become accustomed to being in-demand to everyone who reaches out to them. It is no wonder then that our phones captivate our attention even beyond concerns for our own safety. Everyone from legislators to law enforcement to Oprah Winfrey has jumped on the safety concerns associated with distracted driving. While it is clearly a danger to drive a motor vehicle without paying attention to where it is going, phones are presenting dangers to non-motorists, as well. A recent study suggests that distracted walking is also problematic for those who care about safety.

Texting and Walking?

City and regional planner and professor emeritus at The Ohio State University, Jack Nasar set out to research just how dangerous cell phone usage was to pedestrians. In his study he found that people talking on cell phones were 48 percent more likely to meander into oncoming traffic. This, of course, poses a safety risk to both the pedestrians and to the motorists who are traveling into their paths. Nasar’s research has also demonstrated that the number of injuries to pedestrians on phones doubled between 2004 and 2010. The number of pedestrians who were injured while texting outweighed even the number of injuries that occurred to drivers who were texting.

Another study done by an exercise scientist at Texas A&M named Conrad Earnest suggested that pedestrians tend to act more cautiously while they were texting. He explained that they slowed their gait, lifted their feet more deliberately, and appeared more cautious around obstacles. Nonetheless, it appears that in real-life scenarios, distracted walking is a danger. As David Schwebel, director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Youth Safety Laboratory, put it, “Your brain has to process much information to cross a street safely.”

The Safety

While the studies are certainly insightful, common sense suggests that many already understood these dangers. Crossing a street, even at a marked intersection, involves many moving parts. Drivers must obey the traffic signals, pedestrians must stay in the designated crosswalk, and the traffic signals must function properly (not to mention the absence of an unexpected emergency vehicle or bicyclist). Zoning into a cell phone to respond to a text or email means the mind is unfocused on the events surrounding it. Listening to music too loudly can also pose a risk to pedestrians. Should a driver run a stoplight or an emergency vehicle whip through the area, a pedestrian needs to remain aware. When it comes to traffic, delayed reactions mean danger.

Lawyers Not Obsolete….Yet

In summary, be careful out there. Until self-driving cars learn to talk to pedestrians’ mobile devices to warn the car to stay away, the world is still a dangerous place for pedestrians and driver’s alike. I help people every day who are injured due to the carelessness of others. (Did you know there are people that actually read books while walking down the street?) Don’t do that. Finally, if you get hurt due to someone else’s carelessness, call a lawyer. We can help you.

Justin Katz is a personal injury lawyer who represents injury victims in Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC
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