Dont Take the Wrong Tech Trip

Opinion: Technology must take a back seat to the demands of being behind the wheel.

My local newspapers recent front-page story desperately needed a quotation from someone to make an obvious point. I read it all the way to the end, but the dog (as Sherlock Holmes might have said) never barked.

"A 16-year-old high school student was killed instantly," the story began, "when the car she was driving crashed into a power-line pole. ... [She] apparently lost control of her BMW just before 11 p.m. ... Either she was trying to call me or she had just called me almost at the time that it happened, said her mother. ... Rain-slicked roadways may have been a factor. ... The cause of the crash is still under investigation."

I kept waiting for someone to say something about the Bad Idea of a teenage driver, at night, on a wet road, driving a high-performance car while using a mobile phone. Since no one cited in the story was rude enough to mention the last of those contributing factors, I guess its up to me.

Personal and mobile technology gifts are on many holiday wish lists. Im not just talking about teenagers.

Adults are also buying and using this stuff, and many enterprises are putting elaborate communication and logistics systems into their transportation and field-service-vehicle fleets.

Its the job of anyone involved in choosing or deploying mobile technologies to emphasize ease of use, to communicate and enforce safe practices, and to make it clear that productivity takes a back seat to safety.

The temptations are legion. Those TV ads with gift bows on cars, urging you to buy your spouse a Lexus, are flogging automobiles that have the same guts as something half the price.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more about efforts to enforce safe cell phone practices on the road.

The higher prices of premium brands buy you more sophisticated dashboard gizmos. The level of driver distraction is getting dangerously high—at the same time that metro areas report crippling traffic congestion.

Im not objecting to better technology for keeping the driver engaged. Ive driven cars with GPS-based aids that showed me a perspective view of the intersection ahead, indicating exactly what I should be getting ready to do.

In San Francisco, which has some bizarrely angled intersections, this made me much less likely to make a sudden turn as I belatedly realized what I ought to be doing.

Add voice-synthesized warnings of whats about to happen, and you have something thats actually a safety improvement.

If you want to buy someone a Garmin StreetPilot 2720 (an Editors Choice of the folks at sister publication PC Magazine) or the more affordable StreetPilot i3 (also highly rated by PC Mag), go for it—but any technology meant for use in a car and not related to driving should be considered with care and accompanied with stern parental warnings or user training.

Another persistent (and perhaps actually worsening) problem is user interface design.

I drive two vehicles: a 1998 minivan whose sound system has conventional knobs and buttons, and a 2005 sedan whose audio gadgets use steering-wheel push-buttons and touch-screen controls.

Despite driving the latter for more than a year, I still have to take my eyes off the road to do things that I do from muscle memory and fingertip shape recognition in the older car.

The best interface is one that doesnt get in my face. This is not news.

Any aircraft with retractable landing gear uses the same distinctive shape, rather like a wheel, for the knob that controls the raising and lowering of its wheels. The shape of that knob is not just a convention: Its dictated, along with the shapes of the knobs for the wing flaps and various engine controls, by federal aviation regulations.

The aircraft interior stylists will just have to find other ways to express their creativity—and my fingertips will warn me, from the absence of barbs around the edge, if Im about to raise the wheels while parked on the ground instead of shutting down the engine as I intended.

You probably dont have the Federal Aviation Administration on your side, so now its up to you.

Choose mobile technology—for your family and your work force—that doesnt end a trip the wrong way.

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Peter Coffee can be reached at

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