Tech Solutions Create Other Problems


By Sam Greengard

It's ironic that we continually use technology to build safer cars and engineer better medical devices but slide backward with our behavior. At a certain point, we have to wonder whether the words "technology" and "advancement" should be used in the same sentence.

For example, today's cars are safer than ever. They're brimming with airbags, traction control systems, crash avoidance technology, drowsiness detectors and much more. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic fatalities declined by about 25 percent between 2005 and 2010.

Should we celebrate? Probably not. Every time I drive, I see motorists texting and holding phones up to their ears while driving—despite both being illegal. The last time I checked, a basic hands-free Bluetooth headphone costs less than $15. In Starbucks currency, that's only about three Venti lattes, which some people consume in a day.

A Virginia Tech University study found that a driver who is texting is 23.2 times more likely to be involved in a car crash than someone who keeps the phone stowed away. By contrast, drunk drivers are only eight times more likely to be involved in a crash. A HealthDay poll found that 59 percent of motorists eschew hands-free devices and 37 percent admit to texting while driving.

This raises an intriguing question: Do we grow more lax with more sophisticated safety systems? Since fines are minimal and enforcement for many of these infractions falls into the seldom or never categories, it's clear that self-controls don't work. We may fault others for their behavior, but we make exceptions for ourselves.

Driving is hardly an isolated example. Today's medical technology has extended lives and conquered numerous conditions that sickened or buried us in the past. That's the good news. The other shoe dropping is how we've managed to engineer fast food and plentiful cheap food—along with transportation systems that eliminate walking—so that we've become an overweight and chronically unhealthy society.

I'm not sure what the answer is because human nature doesn't change, and people frequently adjust their values, morals and habits to fit whatever benefits them at that moment. Heck, an entire industry has been spawned—including expensive radar detectors and iPhone apps that log police enforcement—so that speeders can continue to break the law and not get caught.

I'm guessing that, ultimately, we'll just keep engineering new technology solutions to solve all the new problems technology created in the first place. At least it's good for the economy.