Safety in Numbers

It was around 2007 that driver distraction as a road safety issue leapt into our loungerooms courtesy of the Transport Accident Commission.

Its shock and awe approach to galvanising the public around its ‘Distracted Drivers are Dangerous’ campaign paved the way to a steady filmography of vivid and mostly horrific simulated collisions and crashes nominally reserved in real life for paramedics, police and fire crews.

In the effective TV ad, a range of distractions, unnecessary to the practical responsibility of driving a passenger vehicle, are dramatised — mobile phone use, a dropped child’s toy and operation of a CD player.

Each is directly correlated to a near-miss or worse.

A decade on, driver inattention or distraction was again in the crosshairs when it was found as the cause of 39 per cent of major truck incidents in 2018, up from 29.6 per cent in 2017, according to a study from NTI’s National Truck Accident Research Centre.

While it’s nigh on impossible to ignore the profound behavioural changes digital connectivity has ushered into our everyday lives, the integration of cellular phones, satellite navigation, touchscreens and Bluetooth, none of which can be said to improve driver distraction, is to this day apparently a non-issue.

Of course, one might argue the prevalence of Lane Keeping, Adaptive Cruise Control, Collision Warning and other safety technology as a suite of features – call it a corrective – helps to offset the others.

To my knowledge the person who wants to die on that hill has yet to come forward.

Automation in transport is nothing new and each of these systems, now mandatory on many of the latest commercial vehicles and passenger vehicles, utilises programmable technology whose system relieves the driver of control of the vehicle.

This of course is a good thing in response to an approaching collision.

However, drivers are also proven to become less vigilant when they have less governance over the vehicle. Focus wanes. Responses dull.

Attention is no longer concentrated strictly on the important task of driving.

The logic of automation is totalising according to author Matthew Crawford, who has observed that with each stage of increased automation, “remaining pockets of human judgment and discretion appear as bugs that need to be solved”.

In what he calls the “safety industrial complex”, Crawford contends there are no limits to its expanding dominion. Truck driving, of which there is an ongoing shortage of operators, is considered one of the most dangerous occupations in Australia.

Right now many OEMs and tech startups around the globe are in the process of evaluating different forms of automation in commercial vehicles as the task of moving enormous freight volumes mushrooms.

It should not come as a surprise that Crawford is a vocal opponent of automation. An automobile and motorcycle mechanic, Crawford, who has a PHD in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, argues in his bestselling book Shop Class as Soulcraft (2009) that our happiness is contingent on losing ourselves in “work that is genuinely useful and has a certain integrity to it”.

Crawford views skill and responsibility as undergirding principles of the type of self-government that decides the sort of regime of mobility we will inhabit.

To what lengths can we continue to forego skill and abdicate responsibility if safety alone is the all-encompassing measurement? In this regard, life on the road is also tantamount to life outside of it.

What do we surrender each time we defer responsibility for our protection to others?

A motorcycle apparel company provides a glimpse into the future.

Klim has designed an airbag vest for motorbike riders and people who undertake dangerous exploits.

For the vest to work, in which a detection module made by a French firm senses a coming crash and inflates the bag, the company is charging a premium.

A monthly subscription-based service is offered to make it manageable for those who can’t afford an annual lump sum.

But don’t miss a payment or it will actively disable the safety features. Some would say it’s a new twist on paying extra for safety.

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