Driving cars has become too easy of a task

Published 9:58 am Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Column: Pothole Prairie

For most of us, driving is an “overlearned” activity, psychologists say. We do it so much that we can do it without thinking. We do it so well that it is dull.

It’s a double-edge sword. On one hand, because we are so good at it, we stay safe. But because it can lull us to boredom, our minds desire stimulation — like the radio or something to drink — and cars continue to get better and easier to handle and the roads get more advanced and smarter-built. These factors make driving even easier, smoother, more dull.

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The introduction of the cellphone has made matters worse. Not only are we rolling inside motorized cages that practically drive themselves, we all carry these devices that provide instant entertainment anywhere we go.

I bring this up because this Saturday I had the pleasure of driving a 1990 Ford Mustang GT from urban south-side Minneapolis down Cedar Avenue into the country to rural Castle Rock. Driving a 5.0-liter, 225-horsepower V-8 engine with a five-speed manual transmission was easily more engaging than driving the old family station wagon. I didn’t just drive a car. I piloted it. I was a real motorist, listening to the tune of the engine, shifting at the right levels, feeling the curves of the road and looking forward to the next reason to slow down and speed up. And I never went faster than the posted speed limit. Honestly!

My cellphone was right by my side on the console, as usual. It beeped at me when a friend texted me. Glancing at a text message while driving is far more common and obviously less dangerous than composing a text, yet any reading while driving is nevertheless risky. I admit that normally I would glance to see who texted me and what was stated but then wait to respond until I am parked.

Still, in everyday driving, texts seem more interesting than driving itself, and I have to resist responding.

However, while driving the Mustang, the text message seemed more like an annoying interruption. Engrossed in driving the sports car, I didn’t bother with my phone, and I soon forgot I had received a text in the first place. Hours later, I looked at my phone and recalled there had been a text message.

It often is the thinking of road and auto engineers that the less a driver has to do, the safer driving is. Manual transmissions are harder to come by. Beeps tell us when we back into things. Roads rumble when we wander to the sides. Roads get straightened. More controls are placed on the steering wheel.

The engineers are correct, in a sense. Studies show that our cognition goes down the more information we must take in. For instance, people remember less from TV news with tickers across the bottom than from TV news with an anchor simply reading.

But there must be a point that if there isn’t enough information our minds desire stimulation. New drivers are eager to become good at driving and often do their best to pay solid attention, though some end up trying to act like longtime drivers when they aren’t.

The fact is, most of us on the road are longtime drivers. If the TV news did nothing but repeat itself every five minutes, we would turn the channel out of boredom.

I argue that — for many drivers but not all — stick shifts and high-end performance would be safer than the standard auto-transmission family cars we steer daily.

I’m not a scientist. I don’t have evidence. And a book on traffic by Tom Vanderbilt that I possess doesn’t answer my question. The book describes in detail the problems of too much input but doesn’t say much about too little input.

But my theory must have some validity. I’d like to read a good paper on the topic.

I mean, I bet most young adults today have never steered a car without power steering and have no idea the ease it brings to turning. I sort of wish kids had to learn on a difficult car, appreciate the basics of driving, then get to step up to the easier stuff. I learned on a Datsun 210 with a bad clutch. Those cars didn’t come with power steering, either. We felt the road.

Using cellphones behind the wheel is wrong, no doubt, but the reason so many people do it is that driving nowadays is boring. It’s not like we are motoring in 1966 Chrysler Imperials — beautiful tanks. We are driving living rooms on wheels, complete with TV sets and recliners. I say magnetize all the roads and make all the cars able to drive themselves. We just type our destination and lean back. If I am going to Minneapolis, I could work on my laptop instead of drive a car.

It’s either that or we all start driving automobiles that are more engaging than cellphones.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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