Tech ‘upgrades’ can put those not in car at-risk

Q: You’ve written before about A-pillars being a visibility problem, but try being tall with the safety cam in newer cars completely obscuring your vision for its own purposes of viewing and distracting you as a driver! Aren’t there some standards that car companies have to meet about visibility?

A: Are we living in a world where we’ve prioritized what a car can see over what the driver of the car can see? Until we reach a point where cars no longer have steering wheels or gas and brake pedals, we still need to see where we’re going.

Not knowing the car you were driving, I’m going to make a guess that what you experienced was a problem of bad fit as much as poorly placed technology. The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards require a minimum of 70% light transmittance for windshields. However, the top few inches of a windshield, called a shade band, is not considered “requisite for driving visibility” and does not have to meet that standard. It’s also the zone where your rearview mirror is installed. If an automaker doesn’t think you’ll have any need to look through that band while driving, that would be the logical place to put some safety technology. Unfortunately, it sounds like the car designer didn’t factor in someone of your height.

Even if that is the case, it points to a larger problem; we’re making cars safer for occupants, but we forgot about everyone else. Big roof pillars protect vehicle occupants in a crash, but they’re bad for seeing pedestrians. Giant displays in the car provide great maps for navigation, but they draw a driver’s focus away from the road. Cameras and sensors help the car assist you, but all the features can distract you from the actual driving. Misused, these “upgrades” can put other road users at risk.

We tend to link distracted driving with cell phones, but that’s only a piece of it. In the 2022 statewide distracted driving observational survey, over half of distracted drivers had diverted their attention to something other than a phone.

Distractions come in many forms. It could be spilled coffee, last-minute personal grooming, kids in the back seat, eating any In N Out burger if you ordered it animal style, and fiddling with the technology that came with your car. Some of that tech was meant to keep drivers safer, but if you’re not familiar with it before you put the car in gear, trying to figure it out while driving takes attention away from where it belongs.

Despite all the potential distractions, most of the time drivers have their focus on the road. In the observational survey I mentioned, 9% were engaged in distracting behaviors. But that small percentage has an outsized impact. Over the past 10 years, distracted drivers have been involved in 23% of fatal crashes.

There is good news. Our attitudes about distracted driving have changed in recent years, and so have our behaviors. A decade ago, 69% of drivers admitted to using their phone while driving. In Washington’s most recent traffic-safety survey, that dropped to less than 33%. That’s translated into lives saved. In 2014 there were 171 fatalities involving distracted drivers. In 2022 there were 99.

We’ve gotten better at putting our phones down while driving. If we can also get better at avoiding all the other distractions, including the tech built into our vehicles we’ll continue to move toward our goal of zero deaths on our roads.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.