Friday, 27 March 2009

Satnav stories

I'm back on my horseless carriage this week, with two more stories about driving ergonomics in the news.

The first broke on Wednesday, as Sky News reported on the "Driver led to 100ft cliff edge by sat nav". We see these stories from time to time - whether it's driving up a one way street, driving into a river, or in this case nearly off a cliff - people blindly following the instructions from their gadget. It's an issue of trust in technology, which is widely discussed in the ergonomics literature.

Raja Parasuraman, one of the foremost authors on the topic, talks about 'use, misuse, disuse, and abuse' with technology (specifically, automation). If it seems too smart, we become overreliant and misuse it; if it keeps going wrong, we lose trust and misuse it. The abuse comes from designers and manufacturers who use technology for the sake of it without considering the user.

Now, the satnav is not automation, but it adds a layer of technology that has many benefits and disadvantages. For some users - and this may just be a trait rather than reflecting anything about their intelligence - there is an implicit faith in the technology. "It comes from a satellite, so it must be right", that kind of thing. It's almost like we suspend judgement when following instructions - and it could equally happen if it were a co-driver giving us directions, depending on how much you trusted their judgement (which is exactly the same point). Obviously it's less likely to happen if you were reading a map yourself - you'd probably take in all the information around you to make your decision.

Naturally, the law doesn't allow for suspension of judgement when in charge of a car, and on this occasion the driver faces a court case for driving without due care and attention. He may look back and laugh one day, but it could've been a lot worse.

Just to briefly touch on the second related story as it's just arrived in my inbox - Philadelphia is on the verge of joining a long list of US cities that have banned mobile phone use when driving, as reported here. I already talked about this a couple of weeks ago (see this post), so I won't labour the point. But I was particularly reassured by indications that the message is getting through - and I quote the Police Commissioner, "There is no debate, cell phones and driving do not mix." Quite right, as the plethora of ergonomics studies shows. Unfortunately this particular bill only relates to hand-held phone use, whereas the literature clearly demonstrates that hands-free is just as bad. If only we could have a precedent for banning hands-free...

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