Human Nature

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Driving should be more like Northwest Flight 188.

Woman on a train. Click image to expand.
A woman on a train talks on her cell phone

What can last week’s distracted flying incident teach us about distracted driving?

Sen. Amy Klobuchar raised that question at Wednesday’s hearing of the Senate commerce committee:

We had in Minnesota, and then into Wisconsin, the ultimate example of distracted driving, and that was distracted driving at 37,000 feet, or distracted flying. … [The government’s] preliminary findings … seem to point to the fact that the pilots were actually distracted. They didn’t fall asleep, but they were looking at their laptops and checking out crew schedules while they had hundreds of passengers in the back and flew for 91 minutes [while] not answering their radio signals.

Klobuchar asked U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood what to make of this incident as Congress considers regulation of distracted driving. LaHood answered:

Any kind of distraction, whether you’re driving a train, a plane, a car, a school bus, a transit bus, a light rail—you can’t do it. You just can’t do it. You cannot drive safely. … And we should figure out ways to get these cell phones, the texting, the use of cell phones, the use of laptops, out of the hands of people who are supposed to be delivering the public someplace safely.

I’m highly sympathetic to this argument. Research shows that your brain can’t function effectively in two worlds at once. And while I initially thought the pilots of Northwest Flight 188 might have fallen asleep, there’s no excuse for what both pilots admit to doing: ignoring the voices they heard on their cockpit radio.

But it’s also worth noting that apparently, the pilots didn’t take out their laptops until the plane had reached cruising altitude and was on autopilot. According to the New York Times, the plane “apparently flew on autopilot to the last point specified by the crew, a point in mid-air at which the crew would ordinarily receive instructions from air traffic controllers about which approach pattern to use.” In fact, the reliability of airline autopilots  is a big reason why experts initially suspected the pilots had been sleeping. Here’s a typical account in Time:

Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit group working to lower aviation accidents, says modern aircraft give flight crews very little to do during the straight-and-level portions of flight. “The aircraft is on autopilot, the flight plan’s programmed in, one pilot says hello and goodbye to a controller every 10 to 15 minutes, and there’s not a lot else going on.” …

If that’s true, then this incident isn’t “the ultimate example of distracted driving,” as Klobuchar suggested. It’s much safer than what people do on the road. Drivers don’t have prescribed cruising trajectories or autopilots.

Maybe they should. Maybe one lesson of Flight 188 is that driving should be more like flying. There are tricky parts that require close attention and adjustment—takeoff and landing for planes, local navigation for cars—and then there are parts that can be automated: cruising altitude for planes, freeway driving for cars. A freeway autopilot would have to keep you in your lane until your exit. It wouldn’t zip around from lane to lane like a jerk. But I’m guessing most of us could live with that.

How farfetched is this idea? Consider what Lexus is already selling:

Lane Keeping Assist, an intelligent system which can lessen the burden of steering. This system uses a stereo imaging camera to monitor white line road markings (subject to weather, climate and road conditions). Lane Keeping Assist offers two functions: [1] Lane Departure Warning: If the possibility of inadvertent lane departure is detected, the system provides an audio-visual warning and applies a brief corrective steering force. [2] Lane Keep: This can provide additional steering torque to help the driver apply the appropriate steering input to keep the vehicle within the lane.

So we’re already beginning to automate driving in a manner similar to flying. Automation won’t make humans pay attention to alerts telling them to retake control of their vehicles; that’s our job, and it’s why the Federal Aviation Administration was right to strip the Northwest pilots of their licenses. But if humans pay enough attention to step in when computers or other humans tell them to do so, there’s no reason why computers can’t do more of the driving. Then, perhaps, we could do what LaHood says we can’t do: talk, text, and check our laptops at the wheel without putting anyone at risk.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1) A compromise on outdoor smoking. 2) Charging fat people more for ambulance service. 3) The beauty of artificial virginity.)