Many people believe that distracted driving accidents are a new phenomenon brought on by the widespread use of cell phones behind the wheel. However, distracted driving is actually as old as the automobile itself.
The standard definition of distracted driving is allowing any action or device to divert one’s attention away from the primary task of driving.
In recognition of April’s Distracted Driving Awareness Month, we present the following historical glance at the many auto accessories and in-car activities that can fall within this broad definition.
Since the first electric headlights debuted in 1911, drivers have struggled to avoid being distracted by these and other lights on the exterior of automobiles.
Popular Mechanics reports that the first lights were not sealed well. So, they provided a tremendous amount of glare to oncoming traffic. Automakers began to equip cars with sealed beams in 1940.
Buick first offered flashing turn signals in 1938 as rear flashing lights, according to Motor Era. The lights were meant to capture drivers’ attention. In 1940, the flashing signal was extended to front lights, and the signal switch was given a self-canceling feature.
Another kind of light, the in-car cigarette lighter, debuted in 1925 as a cylindrical, removable plug typically found in the dash of a car, Motor Era reports.
Pushing in the plug activated an electrical coil. Once heated by the car’s battery, the coil could be pulled and used to light a cigarette.
However, in the process of lighting up, a driver would need to take his or her hands off the wheel and eyes off the road. The driver could also be distracted by sparks or falling ashes.
About Autos explains that, as cigarette smoking has waned, the 12-volt power outlet that was once used to light cigarettes has been transformed to a power outlet which is used for any number of distracting electrical devices. In fact, most cars today have multiple power outlets.
When mechanical windshield wipers were added to a driver’s line of sight around 1913, many people feared their rhythmic motion would distract drivers and lull them into an almost trance-like state, according to this distracted driving history.
Today, automakers continue to work on wipers that come on automatically when needed, eliminating the minor but real driver distraction of finding and setting the wiper switch as rain obscures the view.
The federal government’s distracted driving awareness website lists “adjusting a radio, CD player or MP3 player” among its examples of common driver distractions. Indeed, music players have been distracting drivers for more than 90 years.
The car radio debuted in the 1923 Springfield sedan as an option, according to Motor Era. It became successful commercially in 1930, Car and Driver states.
A few decades later, in 1955, Chrysler actually offered a small record player in its high-end cars, which played seven-inch recordings produced by the automaker, Car and Driver states.
The player combined the distraction of positioning a disc and needle with the diversion of reacting as records inevitably skipped in a moving vehicle. Needless to say, this feature did not last long.
Car and Driver reports that 8-track tape players – “a loser from the start” – debuted in Fords in 1965 and were gone by the early 1980s.
Cassette tape decks, smaller and harder to locate and manipulate while driving – especially if they were kept in their plastic cases – debuted in the 1970s.
The first in-dash CD players were introduced in 1985. Today, they are being replaced by docks for MP3 players, iPhones and other devices.
Ray Kroc is well known for establishing McDonald’s and the fast-food industry in 1955. He introduced automation to the restaurant industry just as Henry Ford introduced the assembly line to car manufacturing.
Travelers in a hurry to get takeout burgers, fries and drinks and get back on the road were among Kroc’s first clientele for systemized, quick food service.
McDonald’s opened its first drive-thru window in 1975 to serve soldiers who were not permitted to get out of their cars while wearing fatigues. However, the History Channel credits the first drive-thru to an In-N-Out Burger in Baldwin Park, California, in 1948.
The drive-thru changed cars, too, the History Channel states. Cup holders were once a rarity in auto interior design. By the late 1980s, it was common for cars to feature front and back seat cup holders, making it easier to take hot coffee or other drinks along as a morning commute pick-me-up – but also an easily spilled distraction.
Gas station road maps – a comedy staple for their multiple folds that are never easy to follow – were first given away as advertising premiums in the early 1910s, according to Collectors Weekly.
Today, drivers may choose from in-dash GPS systems, portable GPS navigators or multiple options for GPS systems in smartphone apps. All require a driver to look away from the road as well as to program them with a destination.
Portable devices may be mounted on the dashboard or the inside of the windshield, where it obscures the view.
A full-featured aftermarket GPS unit may feature multiple distractions such as a trip computer, Bluetooth hands-free telephone capability, MP3 player and an FM transmitter.
Cell phones have been driver distractions from the start. The Art Institute’s “History and Evolution of Cell Phones” reports that early cell phones “were considered to be ‘car phones,’ as they were too large and cumbersome to carry around in a pocket or purse.”
In 1983, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x, “though huge by today’s standards,” was considered the first truly mobile phone because it was small enough to carry.
Early cell phones were just for talking, the Art Institute states. However, manufacturers realized they could integrate more and more technologies into phones. Gradually, features like paging, voicemail, address books and e-mail were added.
Today, cell phones are “multimedia tools.” They are used for surfing the web, checking e-mail, snapping photos, playing games, operating any number of apps, and updating social media sites.
Regardless of what you call it – GPS, phone or multimedia tool – to look down at a small screen and manipulate it as you drive takes your eyes from the road for enough time for your car to travel 100 yards or more.
Getting Legal Help Is Important
Distracted driving of any kind is a potentially deadly form of driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that more than 3,000 people are killed in the U.S. each year in distracted driving accidents – an estimated nine people every day.
Distracted driving that includes using a cell phone or any other portable electronic device is also illegal in New York State.
If you or a loved one of yours has been injured in an accident in New York caused by another driver’s distracted driving, you may be eligible to obtain compensation for your losses.
You should contact an attorney at Powers & Santola, LLP, as soon as possible to discuss your rights and your options for seeking a recovery.