The Human Condition:

On Safety Measures – May 7, 2017

Hands driving

Human nature seems to have a built-in equilibrium system. We are very good at evaluating situations and systems and then invoking a sort of psychological compensator.

Take, for example, the latest models of full-featured cars. They all come with advanced safety options like lane-departure warnings, backup cameras, adaptive cruise control—which adjusts its speed to that of the car ahead and even stops—and other technology that helps the human driver guide and control the car. These vehicles are halfway between the old-fashioned automobile with just human hand-and-foot controls and a clear glass windshield, and the prototype self-driving cars that can follow the road and make complex decisions without human assistance.1

I predict that, rather than make us all safer, these devices—especially lane departure and collision avoidance—will make the person behind the steering wheel less attentive to driving. Many drivers will now think that it’s okay to text or chat on the phone, even with strict laws against these practices, because the car will warn them if anything really important is happening. That’s the psychological compensator in action.

Of course, people still text and chat without any such assistance. When I was doing the long commute down to the biotech company each day, for a while I rode in the company-sponsored vanpool. Sitting high above traffic, we could look down into the cockpit of the cars moving alongside the van. I would routinely see a woman applying eye makeup using the rearview mirror, a man shaving, or someone reading a book propped against the steering wheel. The trouble was, they were all doing sixty miles an hour in dense traffic. But because the road was fairly straight and all the cars around them seemed to be holding their position, these drivers thought it was safe to keep just part of their attention—the eye not getting the makeup, or an occasional glance at the road every other sentence—on the business of driving. With automatic helpers like side cameras and front-mounted radar, these drivers will spend even more of their time on personal business.

In the same way, I’m pretty sure that people who have robotic vacuum cleaners—those flat disk-things that prowl around the room sweeping up crumbs and pet hair—are less conscious about picking up after themselves. And now that every processed food is designed for the microwave, and people are already less conscientious about preparing their own meals, many are careless about reading and following the instructions on the box or can. Just put it in and “nuke it” for a minute and thirty seconds on full power. See how that turns out and repeat as necessary.

People are not necessarily scofflaws or careless. They just have an evolved sense of how to read a situation and judge their own safety and efficiency. Sometimes this sense is faulty—as we can see from those humorous “fail” video clips on Facebook, showing young men attempting parkour jumps from a second-story roof onto a dumpster, or riding a motorcycle at speed up a plank into the bed of a pickup truck. But for the most part people look at their life situation with some precision, and they weigh their expenditures of attention, energy, and time against what they see.

For example, we live in a high-rise condominium with a three-level garage that has one entry point at the top of the structure—the garage is built into a hillside—and an exit on each of the lower floors. Everyone parking there must go some distance around the garage to get to their stall, and many people with stalls on the bottom floor must make two full circuits. Crosswalks are well marked but sometimes blind, and each of walkway is protected with a stop sign for oncoming vehicles. Still, most people travel through the garage at about fifteen to twenty miles an hour. Given the available sight lines, that feels like a safe speed. Some people travel thirty miles an hour or more, and that’s just too fast if others are backing out of or walking away from their stalls. And yet the condo association has rules limiting the garage speed to five miles per hour and has posted this limit on every other pillar in the structure.

Five miles per hour is just a fraction above human walking speed. Given the distances involved, that means most people will take ten to twenty minutes to drive from the entrance to their stall, or from their stall to an exit.2 Most people don’t factor that kind of delay into any of the trips for which they want to use their car: starting on the morning commute, getting back in the evening, of just dashing over to the shopping center. Nobody in our garage drives five miles an hour. They don’t have to, because their internal sensor says that three to four times that speed is still safe. There’s no cop around to ticket them—just occasional newsletter blasts from the homeowners association reminding us of the speed limit. And yet, at those higher speeds, massive carnage does not take place.

In the broader society, we have town councils, state lawmakers,3 and federal legislators passing all kinds of rules and regulations designed to make people safer. For example, the State of California posts sixty-five miles per hour as the freeway speed in most areas, only going up to seventy on certain long-distance freeways out in the countryside, like Interstate 5, where the sight lines stretch for miles. I can tell you from experience that if you’re not doing seventy-five or eighty on the road, you’ll get run over. And I have had Highway Patrol cruisers careen past me—sans lights, sirens, or any other sign of authority in a hurry—as if I was blocking their lane. When all the fish in the stream are breaking the speed limit by ten to fifteen miles an hour, I guess you save your tickets for the ones doing ninety or a hundred and weaving in and out of lanes.

The city might put a stop sign at every corner and a traffic light every other block, and people would still roll through if they could see that nothing’s coming at them for a quarter-mile. More safety measures, especially those that fly in the face of a human being’s internal evaluation of the situation, don’t make us safer. They just make us feel guilty—well, mildly—as we go about our business.

When cars are truly self-driving, like little personal buses, then we won’t even bother to look out the window or close the door when we get in or out.

1. See The Future of Self-Driving Cars from March 12, 2017.

2. I’ve walked through the garage—and I’m a fast walker. It takes time to make a full circuit.

3. Don’t get me started on the Proposition 65 warnings about “chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and reproductive harm.” They are posted on virtually every building and enclosed structure because, hey, modern life is full of chemicals. Who among us pauses in thought and then decides to stay outside?