Clever technology doesn't relieve you of responsibility

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 07/90 item 03 - scanned

Over 5000 people are killed on Britain's roads each year. Add to this the even higher figures for serious injuries and you'll realise why the EC has welcomed the idea of a 'crash-proof car. I like the idea of cutting the carnage on the roads too, I but I can't help remembering that these are the very same bureaucrats that invented butter mountains and wine lakes. Perhaps they've learned to see beyond the ends of their noses, but I doubt it. They think that crash-proof cars will reduce road deaths. In fact, I suspect that they will have the opposite effect.

Let's examine the proposals. At a fixed date in the mid-199Os all new cars will be fitted with crash-proofing electronics. Governments will then install roadside electronic devices at urban junctions and other black spots. These devices will watch out for approaching traffic, make the necessary calculations and if a car is approaching too fast, at the wrong angle or whatever, they will send signals to the car's electronics - causing them to override the driver's actions. If necessary the on-board electronics will be able to adjust the car's steering, braking and acceleration.

Apart from the obvious difficulties of some cars having the fittings and some not, I can think of a number of objections to this scheme. The main one is that we're substituting electronic intelligence for the human variety. As long as the power is on or the machine is functioning properly, that's probably no bad thing. The trouble with the idea is that power failures do occur and electronic devices do go wrong.

My second objection is that it will be unrealistic to expect the government to install these electronic sentries at every urban junction and black spot in the land - such an operation simply won't be feasible. This means that some junctions will have them and others won't. On the face of it, this means that providing the driver continues to exercise the same caution as she does today, it won't matter a hang. Unfortunately, the likelihood is that many drivers will come to believe that their new cars really are crash-proof.

They'll go down to a busy junction and see what happens if they just hurl their new cars at it. The cars will be in tip-top working order and, unless they're very unlucky, the roadside beacon will be working and they will be safely and automatically seen across the junction. A few experiences like this will convince the drivers that their cars are now safe. Their concentration levels will slip and accidents will start to increase at unmonitored junctions.

It would almost be worth switching the beacons off now and again, just to keep drivers on their toes. The trouble is that any accidents which occur while the system is off will be blamed on the government. 'Improvements' to our lives brought about by electronic wizardry need to be looked at very carefully, especially where individuals are relieved of responsibility for their own actions.

People have always enjoyed blaming 'them'- or computers - when things go wrong. Such a scheme is just another opportunity for people to behave irresponsibly, secure in the knowledge that they can blame someone or something else for their own shortcomings. As much as I'd like to see the slaughter on our roads reduced, I'm not sure that the technical fix is the right way to go about it.

This problem isn't unique to cars. I see it all the time with computers too. I went into a well known electrical retailer once for a CD player. I was told to take it from a stack on the floor but when I got to the counter the computer told the assistant that it couldn't be sold because it wasn't in stock. In a similar way, I reckon that managers up and down the country are convinced that their spreadsheets are complete and accurate models of their businesses. They live in their little spreadsheet world, calculating and recalculating, forgetting to go on the shop floor to see what's really going on. Some things, like the mood of the workforce, simply cannot be built into a spreadsheet.

These are all ways in which we allow technology to separate us from reality and personal responsibility. It might be very comforting for the individual to have a scapegoat for when things goes wrong, but that doesn't alter the outcome. We have to remember all the time that technology is only as good as its inventors, its source of power and the data on which it operates. If you attack someone with a hammer, you are responsible for the consequences. In the same way, we should regard computers, software and other modern technologies only as tools to be wielded at the discretion of their human users. We cannot blame technology any more than we can blame the hammer for our own inadequacies.