Eyes on the road not the high-tech dash

Last month I bought a new car.  Not a brand spanking new car, but a new car for me.
It came without any of the tell-tale signs of a life hard-lived.
It has straight panels, spotless duco, low kilometres and no burn marks on the upholstery.
Important for me, it has impressive safety features; and important for my husband, it has a real spare wheel.  None of this space-saver or run-to-flat rubbish for him. There is a genuine spare tyre in the  boot.  But I digress.
When all the papers were signed, it was time for the “tutorial”.
These days buying a car, even a second-hand one, involves more than just handing over the money, shaking hands and waving goodbye.  There’s the tutorial because everything is so high-tech and complicated.  

Schooling buyers in advance apparently saves those pesky phone calls to the dealership later on.
My 30-something tutor started with the basics. Okay, so the fuel cap is on the driver’s side. Ah, that’s where the bonnet catch is hidden. Right, not a lot to look at under the bonnet, is there?  So if I need a new battery, I have to bring the car in to the service centre?  Understand.

And when he asked if I’d like my phone synced with the car, I said “you beauty” or words to that effect and promptly handed over the smartphone which I can tell you, dear readers, is way too smart for this owner.

I tuned out while he was tuning in, but was jolted back to reality when he asked a most curious question.
“Would you like to read your text messages in the car,” he said?
Read my what?
“Your text messages,” he replied with the deliberate patience one uses with a small child. “Would you like to read your text messages here on the dash, Kate?”

You have to be kidding, I thought, but I managed to articulate a polite no, thank you, Kyle, it’s probably safer if I stick to reading my text messages when I’m not behind the wheel.
Here we are in the midst of a worldwide epidemic of distracted driving that is having tragic consequences on a daily basis and car manufacturers are offering more and more in the way of distracting gadgetry.

And just when you think in-cabin technology can’t get any more complicated, the next generation of cars appears with new extras to make motoring more fun, more entertaining, more convenient – and potentially a lot more dangerous.

“Manufacturers are offering us more and more in the
way of distracting gadgetry”

Even for the most experienced, driving is a cognitively complex activity that requires full concentration and undivided attention.
If you’re using a mobile phone, fiddling with the GPS or the radio, or chatting with your passenger, your brain is dancing back and forth between competing tasks to the detriment of the main business – safe driving.
Now multi-tasking is okay if you’re doing mundane things like ironing shirts and watching TV or preparing dinner and talking to your beloved about the events of the day.  What’s the worst that can happen?  

You burn a shirt or the dinner.

Engaging in secondary tasks, such as talking on the mobile, while you’re engaged in the primary task of driving is another matter altogether.
It can make you take your eyes off the road, your hands off the wheel, and your mind off the driving  environment. It’s  an impact known as secondary task interference, the end result of which is impaired driving performance, with all the attendant consequences of delayed reaction time, difficulty staying in the right lane and maintaining a safe distance from the car in front and so on.
If you’ve ever missed your exit off the Bruce Highway because your mind was elsewhere, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
And why is secondary task interference so dangerous?
One explanation is that our attentional resources are finite, so when we’re doing two things at once, we’re actually splitting our attention between two tasks and doing neither one very well.
From September, Queenslanders caught twice in a year using their mobile while driving will face double demerit points, similar to current arrangements for repeat seatbelt, motorcycle helmet and high-range speeding offences.
So where does this leave the hands-free?
From a legal perspective, you can use the hands-free while you’re driving provided you have an open licence. However, if you start driving erratically, you may breach other driving rules.  
A final word on the power of age and experience.
Although we frequently hear that older people are less capable drivers, studies have shown that this is just not true.

If you have your health and strength, driving is a skill that actually improves with practice.
Studies have shown that, in general, older, more experienced drivers are better at dealing with unexpected road hazards than younger, less experienced drivers.
So the good news is that driving is one aspect of functioning that gets better with age.
However, the bad news is that as we age our ability to successfully multi-task declines, which means that folk our age should focus on driving and not allow ourselves to be distracted by the bells and whistles that are going off on the dashboard.
Remember, such is the power of the mobile phone that its insistent ring can transform a responsible motorist into a menace and a car into a weapon.

For more info:    tmr.qld.gov.au

TELL US what you think
My thanks to all the readers who have sent feedback and comments.  If you have an idea for a column, a motoring story to tell, or you just want to have your say, I would love to hear from you.  
Email me at kate@yourtimemagazine.com.au or write to
Kate Callahan, Your Time Magazine, PO Box 6362, Maroochydore BC 4558.