My life changed on Halloween last year. I didn’t know it then; I thought it was a phase that I’d shrug off, a period of mourning that would heal with time. It healed some, but seems it nevertheless changed me for good.
One year ago I got the horrific news that a family member had been struck by a vehicle and killed instantly. She had been walking down the road holding hands with her loving husband. They had just moved to Florida together to start their dream retirement. All I could think of was how full of life she had been, one of the most joyful people I knew, and how detrimental it would be to poor Jim, her husband who had to pick up the pieces of their life that she left too soon.
I’d known people who had died before. I’ve lost grandparents to those things that take you in old age. I’ve known families who have lost babies within days or months of giving birth. I’ve seen teenagers get in with the wrong crowds and lose their lives. I’ve had classmates who died in war. But no death has shaken me like Joyce’s. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of her being so full of life and love, and then such sudden death. Perhaps it struck close to home - I go for walks, and I drive, and she had no influence on the outcome.
I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something more to her death. It’s a tragedy, but not just a tragedy. It’s horrible irony, but not just a shame. It’s as if her death was supposed to have meaning to me, a purpose, and so fate made it so.
Ever since Halloween last year, I’ve had an uncanny notion of Joyce watching over me when I drive, shunning me when I steal a glance at my phone, and praising me when I avoid a pedestrian who didn’t hear or see me coming. Joyce’s story has made my passion for autonomous vehicles not just selfishly indulgent, but imperative for mankind. And she made it personal. It’s no longer about the “cool” factor of the technology. Joyce is to human drivers as Hiroshima’s Peace Park is to the atomic bomb – a vivid memorial that begs modern society to do away with such destructive forces.
We don’t know what caused the driver to veer suddenly to the side of the road, but I think it’s fair to assume that the driver was distracted, whether it be by a cell phone or otherwise. I’ve been in a collision because the driver behind me was fidgeting with his radio, something that we don’t villanize as we do texting or drunk driving.
What I’ve come to learn in my research is that there are far too many variables when it comes to driving behavior. No one product or activity can ever make a driver completely dangerous or completely safe. I’ve texted while driving in order to stay awake. I rationalized that an alert but distracted driver is safer than a driver whose eyes aren’t even open. Drivers who have had a couple drinks are often safer drivers than those who have had no alcohol at all – slightly inebriated drivers are aware of the risk of getting caught and therefore behave better.
Thus, I’m not going to crusade against any one behavior – texting, drinking, applying makeup, aggressive driving – because none of these are inherently more or less dangerous than any others. Instead, I’m crusading against the one aspect that puts us in danger at all, and that’s putting human beings behind the wheel. We are far too comfortable with driving, far too distracted by life, and far too bad at it (statistically, you are worse than you think). We need smart vehicles to take over, so that we can spend our time doing being distracted.
Take the human element out of driving, and you remove the human error that puts us in danger every time we get near a roadway. Until then, the only thing I can think to do is be the best driver I can be, and I hope that Joyce approves from above.