No laws will change our capacity for stupidity behind the wheel. People will drive and text no matter what legislation is passed. But I think I know how we can use technology to mitigate the danger to fellow drivers. Enter the Center-Mount Distraction Light (CMDL). I think you'll love it.
Los Angeles is an amazing city for car lovers; in the span of two days I saw a teal Lancia Scorpion, an Isuzu i-Mark, and a McLaren MP4-12C. It's the McLaren that I want to talk about– not because it was my favorite of the three (I have a soft spot for Scorpions) but because of the behavior of the driver. He was texting.
When I saw the McLaren on Wilshire Boulevard, I immediately began to weave through traffic to get alongside it to get a good look; you don't see McLarens that often, even in LA, and there's that great window over the engine I wanted to hungrily peer into, like a vagrant at a salad bar. I get alongside, run my eyes luridly over the car, coming to the driver's window, where I see a well-dressed man in his mid 50s, eyes riveted to his iPhone, poking away at the screen. This is a man, in moving traffic, behind the wheel of a car that costs more than every organ in my body (including my eyes, which are 20/20 and a fetching shade of green), and he's barely paying attention to anything except what I'm guessing are the cringeworthy sexts to a woman the age of the daughter he never really talks to. It was then that it really hit me. Collectively, as drivers, we're idiots. It doesn't matter if you're in a freaking McLaren or a 1996 Toyota Echo with mismatched junkyard doors and two temporary spares — we all have the profound and boundless capacity to be morons behind the wheel.
This is a fact everybody already knows, and one that no laws can really change. People are going to drive and text, they're going to drive when drunk, incredibly tired, distracted, high, horny, excited, angry, fighting, in any and all ways that keep you from focusing on the road. I'm not immune. I've driven while confused, distracted, trying to photograph a Vega wagon I saw parked on the street, in crazy-making fights with girlfriends, bees in the car, you name it. It's not going to change; this is the nature of humans and cars.
But I have an idea. Not an idea that will solve this, but an idea that will help, maybe, a little, at least. But it's something. It's an idea the likes of which hasn't been seen since 1986 — the year the Center High-Mount Stop Lamp (CHMSL, to car lighting nerds) became required on cars. And the flawed condition of human driving can be fixed, like all problems, with a bit of automotive signal lighting.
Well, not fixed, but mitigated. Here's what I'm proposing: a new signal light, center mounted, front and rear, yellow in color, flashing, and activated (at least initially) at driver discretion. It'll be called the Center-Mount Distraction Light (CMDL), and I think you'll love it.
The purpose of the CMDL is to alert other drivers when you are knowingly entering a state where your attention is not entirely focused on the business of driving, but you're still essentially capable of driving. You're checking directions on your phone, you're texting, you've had a drink or two but aren't technically drunk, your dog just vomited into your HVAC vents, you're having a screaming fight with your partner, that sort of thing. The CMDL is activated with a left-side foot button, the same type that used to be used to activate the high-beams. It's cancelled with another press of the button. I chose this method to keep the hands free, since many distractions need a hand.
So, for example, say you're driving with your dog in the seat next to you, and he vomits all over you. You're on the freeway, there's nowhere to easily pull over. You activate the CMDL, then use your hand to scoop off as much dog vomit as you can, move your laptop bag out of the way, and calm down your dog. Once you get a bit of order together, you cancel the CMDL and continue as before, with your pre-vomit incident level of attention, or close to it. Then a shower. Go take a shower.
The CMDL is different than the hazard lights because the hazards, overburdened as they are (don't ticket me lights, my car has a technical issue lights, I'll just be here a minute lights, I'm hauling something too big lights, etc.) perform, really, the opposite function. They tell other drivers something unusual is up, you're aware of it, and being more careful as a result. The CMDL is there to warn other drivers that something unusual is up, but you're less careful as a result. You're distracted, and it's probably best if you keep clear.
Legally, we'd need to make sure of a few things. First, cops can't pull you over just because you have the light on; you actually have to do something wrong before they can pull you, like anyone. But, if you are pulled for a violation, if you had your CMDL light flashing, the fines should be lessened by some amount, since it shows at least some level of concern for public safety.
I'm not saying this should be federally mandated, but I think it's at least worth having some automakers trying, like the variable-intensity brake lights many manufacturers are currently testing now. When the third brake light was first introduced, studies found it reduced accidents by nearly 50%; after a few years, as the novelty ran off, that number is about 5%. Which doesn't sound like much, but is a decent number of prevented accidents for something that's cheap enough to be almost free to car manufacturers. Plus, it'll give the designers a new element to play with, which they'll bitch about, but secretly love. Look at all the novel installations we have for third brake lights now; they can make these look good. Plus, with bi-color LEDs, the CMDL could be integrated into the same housing as the third brake light.
So. Now you get to tell me what an idiot I am. Have at it, Internet!