Words matter. The word “oblivious” is the focus of today's discussion. What brought this word to mind was a Speak Out letter to the Cadillac News from my friend Bernie Bovee. In the letter Bernie expressed his concern about “the pedestrian automobile challenge at Cadillac's major intersections.” I share Bernie's trepidation and have stated as much in previous columns.


Within the last ten days I have witnessed examples in downtown Cadillac. I saw a car (driver's head down looking at a phone) blast through a red light at the Mitchell and Harris corner. At the intersection of Mitchell and Cass I observed a pickup truck run a red while making a left hand turn that caused traffic to halt. Another car disregarded a red light at Pine and Lake and made a left turn that required an oncoming car to slam on the brakes and skid to avoid a t-bone crash. Just last Wednesday at 2:12 PM I cringed as a pickup ran a red through fairly crowded mid-day traffic at Mitchell and Harris. On my daily walks, it's getting to be an oddity if I DON'T see a vehicle break the law.


As a pedestrian, I see these situations on almost a daily basis. I call it the Oblivious Factor. Dictionary.com defines “oblivious” as: “Lacking mindful attention or active conscious awareness.” These days, more than ever before, drivers are oblivious to the task at hand – driving a motor vehicle. I know what the problem is and I can prove it.


According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: “The number of traffic deaths jumped by 10.4 percent in the first six months of this year, and at least one of the culprits is likely the rising instance of texting while driving. The percentage of drivers texting or manipulating handheld devices increased from 0.9 percent in 2010 to 2.2 percent in 2014. For drivers between ages 16 and 24, that rate jumps to 4.8 percent and young women are more likely to text than their male counterparts.”

The Michigan Department of Transportation adds that Michigan traffic deaths increased 10 percent last year, the highest level since 2008. (http://www.freep.com/story/money/cars/2016/10/05/highway-deaths-jump-104-first-half-2016/91600450/)


While bare percentages document the problem, DistractedDriverAccidents.com gives those numbers a bit more impact. “Over 2.5 million people in the U.S. are involved in road accidents each year. The population of the US is just 318.9 million. At this rate, the American people could be extinct in two human lifespans. Of these, 1.6 million have a cell phone involved in them. That’s 64 percent of all the road accidents in the United States. Texting and driving is 6 times more likely to get you in an accident than drunk driving. It takes an average of three seconds after a driver’s mind is taken off the road for any road accident to occur. Three seconds is the time it takes to turn your ignition when starting your car. The reaction time for a teen using a cell phone is the same as that of a 70 year old who isn’t using one.” (http://distracteddriveraccidents.com/25-shocking-distracted-driving-statistics)


With all this evidence, it's no surprise that the number of pedestrians killed in U.S. traffic accidents are rising faster than ever before. “Pedestrians now represent the largest portion of U.S. traffic fatalities, in the past 25 years. Since 2013, the number of pedestrian accidents in Michigan has grown each year. That is according to the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning. Last year, in Michigan, there were more than 2,400 people hit by cars -- 170 of those people died.”



So, we know what the problem is. How to solve this is the mind-boggling challenge. I am not sure, short of putting a police officer on every corner, there is a foolproof solution.The Michigan State Police tells us: “When a pedestrian is struck by a vehicle, more than 80 percent of the time the pedestrian is killed or seriously injured. Most of these deaths occur between 6 p.m. and midnight.” October is the most dangerous month for pedestrians. (http://www.michigan.gov/msp/0,4643,7-123-1878_1711-13678--,00.html)


The MSP says pedestrians should look left-right-left before crossing a street and continue looking while crossing, make eye contact with drivers prior to crossing in front of them, and never assume the vehicle driver can see you.” All well and good, but oblivious drivers void all common sense precautions by pedestrians.


And things are about to get more complicated and potentially dangerous. “Until recently, there was no question about who’s responsible for an automobile’s operation: the driver. One-hundred percent. When driverless cars without a steering wheel or brake pedal start hitting the highway, your only role will be ordering the car where to go. Between now and then — about five years by automakers’ estimates — the relationship between drivers and their cars will enter uncharted and potentially hazardous territory. Humans and robots will share the wheel, and it’s uncertain how well people will adapt to this in-between state — whether they’ll remain appropriately vigilant or leave everything to the machine, possibly at their own peril.

More than a third of respondents to a recent State Farm survey said that if a semiautonomous car took over part of the driving duties, they’d eat, read, text, take pictures and access the internet while driving.”



So, how does a pedestrian make eye contact with a robot? Is the self-driving car watching traffic or scanning for pedestrians at crosswalks? If a robotic vehicle hits a pedestrian, does the pedestrian take the robot to court? I have a feeling Bernie and I will have some interesting discussions as we ride the chairlifts at Caberfae Peaks this winter.


Jim Neff is a local columnist. Read Neff Zoner columns online at CadillacNews.com and NeffZone.com/cadillacnews.