Posts Tagged 'consumer advocacy'

Ignite 7: The Coming Revolution in Highway Communication

I promised I would have a more detailed discussion on my proposal to redesign vehicle signals. A five-minute presentation is great, but isn’t quite enough to really cover the details.

The current signal layout has stop lights, reverse lights and turn signals, which are also used as hazard lights. These are the only lights dedicated to signaling a driver’s intentions. We have parking lights and headlights too, but they don’t count. Seriously, they’re not signals.

What’s my problem with this setup? Let’s go over all the lights one at a time.

Turn signals

Turn signals are used to indicate all sideways movement. But there isn’t just one way to move sideways. For one, we change lanes quite often. In many cases, where it’s possible to change lanes or make a turn, it’s difficult to show a driver’s intentions.

Not all intersections are your standard four-way situation. Many have multiple roads in a given direction, and in those cases, it’s common for one lane to lead into two different turns. Also, on highways where two exits split off from the same place, it’s difficult knowing if a driver is taking the more gradual exit or making the sharper turn.

U-turns aren’t legal in all states, but even in those states there are places where they are explicitly allowed. And even where they aren’t, they still happen. Many drivers preparing for a u-turn will use a blinker, then start turning in the opposite direction to allow room to complete the turn. This confuses other drivers, but a dedicated u-turn light would clear up a lot of that confusion.

My idea to revamp the turn signal would look a little like this. To control these lights, we’d have a slight change to the controls we use today: The lane change signal would be activated by moving the blinker switch up or down, without clicking. Releasing the switch would turn the blinker off. Clicking the switch once would turn the soft turn signal on, and a second click activates the hard turn light. Once either direction is blinking, pulling on the switch (which usually toggles the brights with the current setup) turns on the u-turn signal. No matter what signal is on, pushing the switch will always return it to the center, disabling all turn signals.

Brake lights

It doesn’t seem too crazy to expect brake lights to respond to a driver slamming on the brakes, and inform other drivers that the car is decelerating faster than normal.

An outer ring could flash rapidly around the solid standard brake light when the system detects the car slowing down faster than what would be considered normal. I imagine there’d be some testing to determine what that rate would be. Also, if the driver slams on the brakes but the car doesn’t slow down as fast, maybe with faulty brake lines or ice on the road, the outer ring should still flash, to warn others that something isn’t right.

Hazard lights

It bothers me that cars still use the same lights for hazards that they do for turn signals. It seems irresponsible for a manufacturer to limit a driver’s ability to signal a lane change or turn while also signaling that there’s something wrong with the car.

Also, hazards are used in a wide variety of situations, from flat tires to overheated engines to simply driving slower than others up a steep incline. Hazards are generally thought to signal serious problems, so drivers are apprehensive about using them for more mild situations, such as driving a bit slower to save gas or driving in an unfamiliar area.

Like the two-part stop light, these lights would have a mild hazard mode and a severe hazard mode. Maybe drivers would be more willing to use them in less extreme cases if both modes were available.

It only seems natural to make the hazard signal in the shape of a triangle, since that symbol is used to illustrate dangerous situations on the road already. Of course the light should be red, like most hazard triangles and reflectors used to signal accidents and construction zones.

Controlling the dual hazard lights could use a switch much like the one used to control the fan on a kitchen stove: left to mild hazards, right for serious hazards, center to tun both off. Or a button shaped like the hazard symbol, where drivers can push the inner or outer triangles, and the lights would turn on accordingly.

The lights on an actual car don’t need to be nearly this big. That’s one thing many modern automobile manufacturers don’t seem to understand about LEDs. They’re much brighter and clearer, and a light made of LEDs is much more painful to look at than a traditional bulb light of the same size. A simple row of lights will work for the turn signals, and animating the signals would be even more effective.

The horn

This isn’t really in the scope of my main idea, but I do like the idea of a less aggressive horn, used when a driver wants to get someone’s attention when there is no immediate danger. First of all, it must be easier to engage the aggressive horn, since it must be used in emergencies. But a smaller button could activate what I called the Happy Horn in my presentation, which fades in and rises a bit in pitch, so it isn’t as surprising.

I’m very much against using the Angry Horn while arming and disarming car alarms. They’re typically used in parking lots where people are walking around, and to those people, it sounds like somebody is honking at them. Also irresponsible. I’m not a fan of superfluous government regulations, but I’d support one that bans horns used in this case.

Straight ahead signal

An idea I had when brainstorming for this presentation was a straight ahead signal. Why would this be a good idea? There are instances where it would be nice to let others know when I am going straight, and I just know they’re wondering if I’m just forgetting to signal a turn. A straight ahead signal would clear up that confusion, but to be effective, drivers would have to get in the habit of using the signal at every stop and every scenario where turning is an option. The straight ahead light would become the default signal, equivalent to using no signal, and would either be left on all the time or never used. I just don’t see this signal helping things, even though three of the four possible directions–left, right and backward–have their own dedicated signals.

Can we change?

This is all a pretty big change. Not just in the design and controls of the signals, but in the way we use them and expect others to do the same, in a world where half the drivers don’t already use the blinkers they’ve got.

I mention in the presentation that people have changed their recycling habits over time, which called for a change in the way garbage companies handled and dealt with the trash. This was a successful shift brought on by a concern for the environment. A concern for safety and efficient communication might be able to do the same for our car signals.

People are willing to invest in better systems when they feel the investment is worth it. We’ll pay money for a newer technology, like the jump from VHS to DVD, and spend the time learning to use a new computer application, as long as we think the time and money put into it will pay off.

So that’s what I’ve got so far. I would like to add some ideas to this proposal, but after working on the slides and narrowing my words down to 15-second chunks and then re-typing it for this blog post, I’m a bit burnt out on the whole thing. I want a milkshake.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XVIII

Drunk people are users too.

Products deemed to be potentially dangerous to the user or the surrounding environment, such as vehicles, weapons and chemicals, are tested under more strenuous conditions and held to higher engineering standards to ensure a level of personal and public safety. Cars are built with a large number of features meant only as a last resort to save lives during an accident, while household products which can’t have safety mechanisms added–bleach, for example–can only be fitted with safety switches and warning messages on their labels; of course, once the bleach has left the bottle, the label can’t follow it to warn of the dangers of its use.

Some cars are equipped with breathalysers, usually issued after a driver has already been caught inebriated behind the wheel, that won’t allow ignition unless the driver’s alcohol content is below the legal limit. Unlike seat belt, airbags and engine mounts that release the engine rather than crush passengers under their weight, the breathalyser is a precaution meant to prevent a tragedy from happening in the first place, much like the safety switch on a pistol. These all seem like common sense today, but not so long ago they were mere suggestions to the manufacturers.

Architecture is another field of design where safety is a primary concern–emergency elevators, backup stairways and fire escapes are all mandatory additions to large buildings and public spaces. But one place where safety is overlooked, sometimes to an obvious degree, is in the interior design that comes after the architects have finished their job.

Interaction design plays a major role in interiors, and in many cases, it seems, safety concerns are overlooked in the interest of artistic value. In this example, I have to again draw from my experiences at The Triple Door in Seattle. It’s not because I didn’t like it there, but because it seems the designers felt like product testing just doesn’t apply to interiors or architecture, which is unfortunate.

The upper level of the establishment is an upscale bar, complete with a giant fish tank, floor-mounted lighting and, as I mentioned in an earlier post, unmarked restrooms. There is a row of booths for private dining along one side of the bar, and surrounding these booths is a wall about chest high and perhaps five inches thick. The wall is topped with a smooth black finish, and happens to be the proper height on which to rest one’s drink while mingling, dancing, or searching for the restrooms.

In fact, the wall seems like it was meant to hold drinks. And why wouldn’t it? No sense letting that space go to waste. The only problem is that the smooth, slick finish is set at an angle–maybe 10 degrees–and does a really good job of holding a glass full of liquid just long enough to give the illusion that everything’s under control. After picking up the shattered remnants of one too many pint glasses to qualify as random user error, I discovered the angle of the wall wasn’t flat, and tested my own glass on its surface. The less liquid in the glass, the longer it would stay–an empty pint glass generally stayed indefinitely–but a full pint fell off within a couple seconds. A half-full glass was too sporadic to come to any conclusions, but more often than not, it would eventually fall in the time it would take most people to remove their coat.

And that’s considering the people weren’t already hindered by the effects of alcohol. Of course, I was sober when I did these tests–the glass I used was filled with root beer–but this being a bar, the designers should have taken into consideration the altered state of a drinker–not just your average tipsy patron, but the Friday night college student with no kids and no responsibilities. If there is a law in effect disallowing a bartender from serving outwardly drunk customers, establishments like this should put forth the effort to lessen the possibility for accidents and injuries that are amplified when alcohol is introduced. Drunkenness may be considered a corner case from an engineering perspective, but that doesn’t mean it’s less common, just less anticipated in most situations.

Interior interaction seems to fall through the cracks between the architectural and decorative stages, almost as if all safety concerns are expected to have been solved by the architects who are long gone before the next wave of designers step in. But to dismiss the safety aspects of any facet of design is to invite more hazardous situations–especially when a user’s behaviors might be altered by a factor such as alcohol. I’d go so far as to say it would be more responsible for a team of designers to hire drunk product testers to examine new interiors and user experiences at various degrees of inebriation. I’m sure there are people who would volunteer for just such a position.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XV

Drivers need a lot of time to make decisions.

A few years ago, the the city of Seattle decided to renovate its underground transit tunnels, a process which would take at least two years, during which the tunnels had to be shut down, re-routing all bus lines to alternate above-ground routes.

Not surprisingly, the long-term detour packed the downtown area’s already stuffy roads with more buses than city planners originally had in mind. To alleviate the sudden wave of these giant wheeled monsters, certain city blocks were now off-limits to all personal vehicles during peak hours–6am to 9am and 3pm to 6pm on weekdays.

This was a wonderful solution for the majority of traffic concerns at a time when narrow, busy roads suddenly doubled in traffic at the busiest times of the day. However, the implementation of the signs warning drivers when the roads were and weren’t available, along with the way the system was enforced, created an entirely new problem.

White backlit boxes, the same kind used to inform drivers which lanes can turn left and whether U-turns are acceptable in an intersection, were hung near the traffic lights at every block, stating that the roads were closed to private traffic during peak hours, which were listed clearly on each sign. To anyone not a frequent traveler of these downtown blocks, these small, nondescript signs were all drivers had to determine when and where they were allowed to drive.

A central hub of transit, connecting several major freeways and less common but equally important inner-city highways, Seattle has dealt with a similar problem before, on a much larger scale, with great success–a triumph that would suggest the same city could pull it off on this smaller scale with the same results.

I’m talking about the expressways which help motorists living outside of town travel to and from work each day. These expressways are only large enough to allow one direction of traffic at a time, and are open to inbound cars in the morning and outward cars at night.

How do drivers know when taking the expressway won’t lead them head-on into a vehicle going the other way? A series of arms, much like those found at tollbooths and drawbridges, close off entrances when it’s not safe to enter. This obviously can’t be implemented with the downtown traffic, as the arms would be blocking the buses from taking the roads as well, but another effective signal is used on the expressways, and would have greatly improved the conditions of the downtown detour routes: big neon signs placed well before the closed-off street, with the words “EXPRESSWAY CLOSED” lit up only when the statement was true, made for an unmistakable signal that the motorist’s options were limited long before actually reaching the point in question.

Why the city didn’t use this tactic downtown is beyond me. As it was, unprepared drivers would have to notice these signs, legible no more than half a block away, register their meaning, and figure out whether the streets were open or a sudden turn onto a different street was in order. This required drivers to find a clock (usually there’s one somewhere on the instrument panel or stereo, if it’s working and properly set), and figure out whether the streets were open or closed. Essentially, drivers were forced to do math while behind the wheel. Drivers should never be expected to handle numbers while driving, regardless of how simple it seems under other circumstances.

On top of that, some perpendicular streets were one-way, forcing last-minute lane changes in order to exit the closed streets.

If that wasn’t enough (and believe me, it was), police were dispatched to each one of these streets during peak hours to issue rather hefty tickets to those who broke this rule, no doubt earning a good deal off those unfortunate drivers caught off guard by the city’s lack of sufficient signs. And not only did they nab motorists, but pedestrians now had more to worry about than passing cars: police waiting to cite drivers also began ticketing jaywalkers much more frequently than before.

Now that the renovations are complete, the mess above ground should be more or less cleared up. The city has decided to keep one street closed to cars during these hours, and I hope the signage has improved. I’ll see when I visit Seattle next week.

The last thing a driver should be expected to do is make sudden decisions with little warning ahead of time. Washington state already outlawed talk on mobile phones while driving, based on the understood limitations of the human attention span; Seattle had no reason to drop the ball on this one. I might go so far as to suggest the entire situation was planned to increase ticket revenue, or at least wasn’t fixed because of the money it pulled in. Nevertheless, in the interest of safety and clarification, drivers should always be given ample time to make decisions, and a simple Yes or No is much more effective than making drivers do the work on their own.