Can Technology Save Us From Ourselves?

One of the curious things about technology is that we increasingly design and build systems to protect us from ourselves. It also seems that the more technology and safety features a device possesses, the more risky our behavior becomes.

Automobiles, for example, are packed with more safety features than ever before. While the net effect has been to save lives and reduce injuries, there’s also greater distraction and complacency. In 2011, nearly one-quarter of all auto collisions involved the use of mobile phones. Texting revs up the risk of a crash by a factor of 23 times.

One report found that about a third of all collisions result from driver inattention—double any other category.

If you think of it in these terms, nobody in his or her right mind would text while driving. Yet, about one-third of all motorists admit they do it. Moreover, laws are pretty much useless.

Today, 39 states and Washington, D.C., have laws against text messaging while driving, and 10 states prohibit all use of handheld mobile phones. Despite these laws, people continue to tap away with no regard to common sense or legal ramifications. Incredibly, three-quarters of young adults surveyed claim they can safely text while driving.

I’m convinced that many—if not most—of us believe that anti-collision systems, automatic braking, airbags and medical technology will somehow bail us out if we drive badly. And, as we continue to speed along the technology autobahn, new, more advanced tools, technologies and systems correct old problems while simultaneously creating new ones.

The latest developments? Google has just filed a patent for including technology that would allow its self-driving vehicles to detect bad and aggressive drivers.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Transportation Department has announced plans to introduce vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems. The technology would detect when someone five cars ahead is panic breaking or when a nearby vehicle is moving erratically. It estimates that eight out of every 10 traffic collisions involving unimpaired drivers could be prevented using these systems.

I would probably be among the first in line for a vehicle equipped with these safety systems. But I’m also convinced that these semi-automated systems will further ratchet up complacency, aggressiveness and risk taking, wiping out at least some of the gains from the technology.

The ultimate solution? Completely remove people from the equation—a task Google and some automakers are pursuing. However, in the end, autonomous vehicles will most likely introduce a whole new set of problems as we stumble upon ever more inventive ways to endanger ourselves.