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Reaction to Interpretation, Not Reality

December 15, 2010

When it comes to product planning, there’s a pretty tough paradox to resolve.  On the one hand, you need to get as close to the peak of desirability for a product that is likely coming out years from now.  Guessing is one thing, but it’s really a matter of seeing the trends and extrapolating.  On the other hand, today’s perception ends up becoming tomorrow’s reality, regardless of the final buyer’s desire.

So contrast the perception of how distracted driving is killing off more and more people these days, to the reality that’s being forced on us that we MUST NOT be distracted, and the government will force us if we can’t on our own.  And yet, if you do the due diligence and actually look at the data:

The number of drivers involved in fatal accidents who were eating, talking on a phone or otherwise distracted rose 42% from 2005 to 2008. But that’s just one way to read a new study of highway deaths.

Another way is that “inattentive” or distracted driving was recorded as a “primary” factor for just 7% of the 50,430 drivers involved in fatal accidents in 2008. The broader trend was that the number of total road fatalities dropped in 2009 to 33,963, down 22% from 43,510 in 2005. That’s the fastest rate of decline in traffic deaths in peacetime since the dawn of automotive mass production in 1913.

Two researchers at the University of Michigan are doing the responsible planning job.  They’re looking at the actual statistics so that the product planners have real data.  So how about all those people texting their way into oblivion?

Messrs. Sivak and Schoettle found that in 2005, 2,369 fatal accidents were blamed on “inattentive” driving–including eating, talking or using a phone. By 2008, inattentive driving was blamed for 3,366 deadly crashes.

By comparison, the number of fatalities involving motorcycles grew by 14% to 5,129 deaths in 2008 from 4,492 in 2005. The researchers noted this trend is consistent with rising motorcycle ownership among “middle-aged men with little or no prior experience.”

Ah, so it’s inattentiveness, but mostly inattentativeness to your own limitations.  There’s a note that the deaths due to inattentiveness leveled off when Mr. Lahood started his campaign.  To be fair, any heightened campaign probably does mean that people are more intelligent about what they do.  However, the campaign started in 2009, and the numbers above are 2008… so that’s called claiming credit for what’s already happening.

So what’s really happening, and how does that affect the auto makers as they plan models that will come out in 2013 and 2014?  Well, the researchers don’t have anything concrete.  Better safety measures are helping, but so are education, licensing programs, and maybe even the depressed economy are factors.  Auto planners will likely focus on the safety measures, and we’ll see more research and adaptation of air bags and other restraint systems.  I also note that the expensive cars are starting to feature distracted driving indicators.

I would think that new technology will help to reduce fatalities, even as more cars hit the streets.  But with all that, I can’t wait for the government to take credit because they threatened to do a bunch of useless legislation to limit what people can do in cars, which just means that people will get more creative in terms of ways to distract themselves.

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