Tuesday, January 03, 2006

iRant: One Rule for Driving

I recently read an article recently entitled The Roads May Soon Rule You. It discussed how technology (specifically the field of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), which involves vehicles that communicate with each other and the roads they travel) is making advances that will increase traffic safety. Indeed, the ITS World Congress met in San Francisco in November 2005 to share their research and developments in this area. The article goes on to describe some very cool technologies that include:

  • Automatically maintaining a set distance behind a vehicle and even applying brakes to avoid a crash;

  • Vibrating the steering wheel or sounding a warning when your car ventures outside your lane without using the turn signal (my favourite!);

  • Satellite radio and hand-held GPS that alert drivers to traffic congestion and alternate routes;

  • Collision avoidance systems relying on radar or lasters to detect other vehicles;

  • Vehicles that communicate with traffic signals, road sensors, etc;.

  • Sensors telling drivers the colour of the next traffic light, when it will change, and average traffic speeds;

  • Buses that steer temselves using magnets in the road (like light rail without tracks);

  • Oncoming vehicle speed detectors which determine when its safe to make a left turn.

These are all really neat applications of modern science to solve some very real problems that are a result of our increasingly crowded traffic space, but you're probably wondering: where's the rant? :-)

In the comments to that article, there are a couple of people who mention (justifiably) that the authors neglected to include speed limiting devices in their list. Although I have no problem with that abstractly as a technology, I do have a problem with where these comments were headed (NOTE: Despite how this may seem, I am really not a big speeder at all). Apparently all vehicles should have speed controls and there should be fines ($10,000 plus loss of license for five years) for anyone who tampers with or doesn't employ such a device. This, but of course, should be combined with a detector to read the speed limit on the current road and enforce that limit. Now I have no beef with whoever wrote this comment specifically, as I've heard this kind of talk before, but I simply can't understand how anyone thinks (as many people do) that speed enforcement is the number one way to save lives on the road. For example, the Autobahn in Germany, where about half of the highway has no speed limit at all, has a lower death rate than US highways (and, as an interesting aside, if you crash over the "suggested" maximum speed of 80mph/130kph then you are personally liable for some of the damages you cause).

There are so many terrible drivers around, people that absolutely should not have their licenses (e.g. an awful lot of people have no idea who gets right-of-way at a four way stop), that the fact that someone thinks that speed is the big problem just boggles my mind. Don't get me wrong, excessive speeding in population dense areas is certainly a bad idea, but don't tell me that someone driving 10 miles/kilometers over the speed limit on an open highway is more of a danger than someone who doesn't use their turn signal on a busy road or who is talking on their cellphone (or one of those annoying people that feels they need to make eye contact with you if they're talking when they're driving). And yet how often do cops pay any attention to someone for failing to signal or other disruptive behaviour - nope, they're too busy laying down speed traps.

Not using/misusing turn signals is one of my biggest pet peeves in driving. The whole concept behind signals is to explicitly communicate your intentions while driving - an inarguably sound idea. Yet people either don't use their signals or they use them as they turn instead of before they change lanes/turn (what use is that? You're supposed to be telling someone what you're going to do through your signals, not what you've already done). This is much more dangerous than speeding if you happen to ride a bike past one of those drivers as the suddenly turn to crush you. Then there are those people who you see sitting at a green light for 30 seconds or more after it's changed. Although this certainly angers me, the real point here is that: if you aren't paying attention to the traffic lights then what the heck are you looking at? You're in a car, if you want to just gaze around to your heart's content then pull to the side of the road!

Everybody has different things that get to them about people's driving, and so everyone has a different idea of what constitutes bad driving. After much thought (and framing this in a sort of robot/AI context where you want to develop simple rules to succeed at a task), I have boiled my judgements down to one rule of driving (at least city driving): Avoid disrupting the overall flow of traffic. That's it - simple. Use your signals because it informs other drivers and allows traffic to flow more smoothly. Pay attention to lights and signs because they help direct the flow of traffic more effectively. Don't drive too slow or weave in and out of lanes erratically because, you guessed it, it disrupts the flow of traffic. In fact, and to get down to brass tacks, don't run over pedestrians or get in an accident because that really, really can disrupt the flow of traffic.

I know it might not be perfect, but I can't think of another single rule that would result in more positive change for drivers. And in terms of speed limits, there are few other laws (maybe jaywalking) that seem so tailor made to be broken. :-)

PS: Why, when people can so readily accept inserting technological devices into cars to limit speed, when people think that speed traps by the cops are such a great boon to the public good, why can't we all just decide instead to make getting a driver's license a LOT harder and then see what happens with accidents.
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1/03/2006 08:48:00 p.m.  


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