When I recently read that driverless cars may be on the road in less than five years, I first spouted a variation of Charlton Heston’s angry response to gun control: You’ll have my steering wheel when you “pry it from my cold, dead fingers.”
It seems that with each click of our smart phones, computers and tellingly named remotes, we technologically recede a bit further from our world. We’re approaching the point that manually driving an automobile may be one of the last vestiges of our rapidly dissipating sense of control over our lives.
The prospect of putting my life solely in the “hands” of a programmed machine seemed suicidal — physically and existentially. I’m not alone. According to AAA, 75 percent of drivers said they would be unwilling to ride in fully autonomous cars.
Granted, I don’t hesitate to ride in the back of a cab, putting my life in the hands of complete strangers who tend to drive helter-skelter through dense traffic as if they’re playing a video game. I routinely entrust my safety to bus drivers, railroad engineers and jet pilots without a qualm. But I trust them because they have some skin in the game. I’m betting that our shared survival instinct will keep us safe.
No sooner had I channeled my inner Charlton Heston, however, than my wife pointed out: “But you’re always complaining about other drivers. You should welcome driverless cars.”
As usual, she was as irritatingly accurate as my cellphone’s GPS directions. My first reaction to driverless cars was probably as rash as Connecticut drivers, ranked second worst in the nation, according to a survey by the insurance company EverQuote.
Every day, I gripe about drivers texting, eating, grooming, gabbing, daydreaming, speeding, tailgating and raging, all while I’m supposed to be paying attention to the road. And my own aggressive driving may be sufficient grounds for supporting Mark Twain’s observation: “The claim that man is a reasonable animal is in dispute.” The truth is that too many of us drive on our own automatic pilot, set on “careless.”
Further, after my boasting about survival instincts keeping us safe, I must admit these reflexes often trigger a fight or flight response. Too many drivers toggle erratically between anger and fear, aggression and caution, gas and brake. According to AAA, 80 percent of drivers experienced road rage in 2016 resulting in 425 deadly encounters. Otherwise sane and rational people turn cars into deadly weapons, and driving into a game of Russian roulette.
Overall, in the past several years, annual U.S. traffic fatalities rose with over a million injuries; and in 2016 more than 40,200 people were killed, a 6 percent increase over the previous year. Things are not getting better.
And despite laws against driving and holding cellphones, The National Safety Council reports that 1.6 million crashes each year are caused by cellphone use; 33,000 injuries result from accidents while texting. Though we all know it’s a deadly behavior, we irrationally persist.
An 11 percent increase in pedestrian deaths last year also was attributed to distracted drivers. Last December, five Connecticut pedestrians were killed within a 24-hour period. Distracted driving prompted Connecticut to propose a bill to increase fines, and in April the state initiated a month-long enforcement crackdown.
Further fueling the danger, drunken driving accounts for one in every three traffic fatalities. In Connecticut alone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, of the 266 traffic fatalities in 2015, drunk drivers caused 39 percent. And according to a new report by AAA, 63 percent of drivers who died in crashes in Connecticut tested positive for drugs.
AAA also reports that, with the exception of teen drivers, senior drivers have the highest crash death rate per mile driven. Unwilling to give up their autonomy, many seniors continue to drive despite their diminished vision, reflexes and coordination.
Actually, an autonomous car could liberate us from our illusion of self-control. We could stop fooling ourselves that we can multitask and drive safely. We can accept the fact that driverless cars will provide attention and focus to the distracted; responsibility, to the careless; prudence, to the lead-footed and aggressive; and skill, to the inexperienced. It will minimize road rage and its deadly outcomes. And it will give greater autonomy and control to senior and disabled citizens.
So, on second thought, I will channel another variation of Charlton Heston’s position on gun control: “Cars don’t kill; people do.” This may be the most reasonable argument for removing people from the deadly automobile-human equation.