Perhaps the best way to fight impairment and curtail distractions is through a completely zero-tolerance policy
Proponents of an all-autonomous driving world usually cite safety, with a corresponding plunge in death and injury, as a leading reason drivers need to be done away with. I may hate the idea in principle, but they have a point: Drivers are idiots. So how do we stop the worst – the impaired and the distracted – once and for all?
Easy: Zero tolerance for booze and drugs, automatic surrender of any handheld device if you’re involved in a collision, and manufacturers must make infotainment systems that require severely limited physical interaction unless the vehicle is in park. Easy.
For decades, police and the courts, both the bricks-and-mortar kind and the public opinion kind, have struggled to punish, warn, scare, beg, plead and coerce people into not drinking if they intend to get behind the wheel. You’re allowed to have this many drinks, but not that many. You can blow this but not that. One set of rules if you’re 19, another if you’re 21. The resources that go into campaigns to serve as carrots and laws to serve as sticks continue to meet hard resistance.
According to Statistics Canada, one in six drivers charged with impaired driving has already been charged in the past decade. You’d think having a DUI on your record make you just a little ashamed; guess you’d be wrong. So, make it zero. Every jurisdiction has their point-oh-somethings for car seizure, for this charge, for that felony. Everybody argues how many beers it’s okay to have in your belly before you head for home; Ride Check officers debate your “just a glass of wine with dinner six hours ago” as they shine a light in your eyes. Remove the debate. Zero.
We call it impaired driving now, instead of drunk driving, because of the proliferation of both illegal (though, soon not) and legal drugs. We actually establish law on not whether you can drive while impaired, but how impaired you’re legally allowed to be. Scrap that. If you’re behind the wheel, you have to be clean.
The lawyers will have a field day, of course. They will argue that the cough syrup your mother gave you when you were seven-years-old has caused you to blow .02 when you’re 35; lawyers are good at that stuff if you pay them enough. So, the courts will get clogged and entrepreneurs will be mass-marketing boozefest morning-after pills that will mask the evidence better than the Russian Athletic Federation. But just like seatbelt usage, we will eventually move into a time when zero is the acceptable norm.
Distracted driving is actually a far bigger threat on our roads these days, and it’s only getting worse. The initial attack was on handheld devices, and rightly so. When having a phone in your car started becoming a thing in the early 1990s, nobody – well, at least not I – could have foreseen the total immersion of entire populations into a screen they held in their hand.
It doesn’t matter how large the fine, how high the demerits or how extreme the toll. People won’t put their phones down. So, cut to the chase: If you’re involved in a collision, wouldn’t you want to know that the other idiot was texting when it happened? Make everyone hand over their devices. We do this when there is a fatality; why wait?
Vehicle manufacturers have crammed so much technology into new cars, drivers now have more decisions than the Apollo astronauts – and they got to the moon. Many of those decisions can be activated by voice command, which should be perfected and all drivers should learn to use. But the only way to actually stop the fiddlers is to remove the ability: Navigation and similar systems should only be able to be set or changed when the car is in park. Not stopped at a red light. Parked.
I’ll go one step further. Heating, including seat and steering wheel, and volume controls should be tactile – a button or knob accessible without taking your eyes from the road. If you crash your car while reading your Twitter feed or trying to figure out if that’s Journey or REO Speedwagon playing, you’re merely being human and playing with all the cards the carmaker gave you. They should give you fewer cards.
None of these things will be implemented, of course. But just because we can’t make people do the right thing, including saving their own lives, using reason and law, doesn’t mean we should acknowledge the pinhead dancing taking place. We could do more to fight impairment, and we can do more to curtail the distractions.
If we want to.