I have a teenager with a learner’s permit. And that means I am now a driving instructor. He is a surprisingly attentive student. But there are many driving skills that can only be gained through experience. One of these is being able to summon (or admit you are too tired to summon) the mental self-awareness and stamina required to focus your complete attention on this single, complex task. The Department of Transportation lists three actions that fall under the heading, Distracted Driving: Manual (taking your hands off the wheel), Visual (taking your eyes off the road), and Cognitive (taking your mind off driving).
My student is fifteen! He can’t keep track of house keys, remember why he went upstairs by the time he gets there, or remember to do his homework. I am the person who nags him and to whom he is constantly trying to prove he's doing better than he is. Taking all that behind the wheel is not as simple as it was for the drivers' ed teacher. So far, he is surprising me by taking the entire procedure very seriously. But I recently went to a winter driving school in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, hosted by GMC, where I saw some new in-car technologies I wish I had in my car to help with this. We drove the 2012 GMC Terrain in winter conditions with a professional driver offering pointers on how to survive snow and ice conditions while behind the wheel. I’m not usually a fan of too-big SUVs. But this car – a crossover between an SUV and a luxury sedan – had some smart technologies that seemed perfectly suited for the parent of a teen. And I’m not just talking about the heated seats -- though those were awesome.
The altitude in this mountain snow resort made my head swim. So driving there required an extra effort of attention. I imagine that’s what it must be like to be a teen driver. So I tried to use the feeling to understand my son. With this in mind, it was the lane departure warning and forward collision alert -- more than the deliciously cozy seats -- I wish I had in my everyday vehicle. My husband is a tailgater and I’ve been nagging – or resisting the urge to nag -- him about it for years. But when he was behind the wheel of this Terrain, it did the nagging. If he got too close to the car in front of him, a red light on the dash warned him. If he got way too close, an audible alarm sounded. He and I always end up arguing over what constitutes tailgating. But it was hard for him to argue with a machine.
The lane departure warning seemed just as helpful for teaching my son to notice when his attention is wandering. Having a machine warn you – instead of your mother – that you are starting to drift is hard to argue with. For example, Cole and I were recently discussing how anti-lock brakes work while he was driving (so he would not be surprised by them in an emergency.) He wanted to experiment with them in order to understand how they felt at different pedal pressures. And this simple distraction – thinking about the brakes instead of the road – caused him to drift into the other lane.
I chose an empty stretch of road to bring this up so we weren't in danger. But when I pointed out his mistake, his immediate reaction was to argue first and then correct his mistake. This demonstrated -- to me at least -- how slippery “attention” can be. But I’m not sure he learned the lesson because he was too busy defending himself. If an audible alarm had sounded at the moment he started to drift, it would have snapped his attention back without making him feel defensive – especially since the technology is smart enough to not sound when you use a turn indicator. I think a consistent mechanical warning built into the car could help teach a young driver what is obvious to a more experienced driver – that all it takes to lose your focus on the road is a small, subtle shift of attention. At the very least, it would help him correct his mistake before it turned into an accident (or an argument.)
This attention assistance technology (my term) is now on my list of wants along with air bags and other safety devices when I go shopping for a car again. Honestly? I wouldn’t mind having the heated seats either.