Putting new meaning in 'hard drive'

Sometimes when technology advances, the result is a step backward for society. The latest illustration of this paradox came at the recent Detroit car show. I heard a TV reporter describing a new on-board computer system that will allow motorists to access e-mail and perform other cyber-tasks using voice commands.

To me, the idea of connecting the information highway with autos on real highways sounds like a bad intersection. I believe the person in charge of the steering column should be fully concentrating on safely operating the vehicle.

But the discouraging reality is that lots of Americans think it's perfectly appropriate to use the driver's seat as a reading spot, personal grooming venue, or telephone message center. And soon we'll be adding computer workstation to the list.

An observer from another planet might assume that a secret political lobby is protecting citizens from excessive restrictions on behind-the-wheel activities.

We've enacted helmet laws for cyclists, and mandated the use of child safety seats and air bags to protect passengers. But we also keep inventing new ways to distract drivers from the traffic around them.

Public concern about this subject swings back and forth like a broken gas gauge, but in most households it's not a hot-button issue. I made a personal commitment to happy motoring early in life, after reading a Little Golden Book that featured Donald Duck as an errant, abrasive driver. Fortunately, the offending habits were corrected with help from nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and Donald ended up winning a trophy for Most Improved Driver.

In real life, responsible drivers are frequently reviled instead of rewarded. Speed is a good example. Regardless of the posted limit, I'm often in front of someone who wants to go faster. If tailgating doesn't force me to accelerate, they seldom hesitate to swing out and roar past, even when the road is narrow.

I once rented a truck that was fitted with a "governor" on the engine, so it could not exceed 50 m.p.h. I'd like to see all cars similarly equipped (perhaps with a 70 m.p.h. limit), but no legislator would ever risk endorsing such a proposal. Critics would call it un-American, maybe even unconstitutional (although nothing in the Bill of Rights mentions freedom of personal velocity). Car commercials encourage this road-warrior attitude by emphasizing power and excitement.

I favor a calm, focused approach. No cell phone or portable fax on the dashboard.

My goal is avoiding other motorists who travel at full throttle while munching a thick sandwich, caressing the family dog, or setting up a conference call. This cautionary strategy has produced a good safety record over the years.

But whenever I'm on the road, I still feel a lot like a sitting duck.

Jeffrey Shaffer, who writes from Portland, Ore., is a Monitor humor columnist.

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