Radar-based back-up warning system. Click image to enlarge

Article by Justin Pritchard

Recently, I became the object of my own disgust. The thing I hate. The person I scorn in my head, and sometimes, in blog form. That idiot driver you see in parking lots, and sometimes, out on the road.

Let me explain.

Hi there. My name is Justin Pritchard. I’m an automotive journalist. A car expert. A driving enthusiast extraordinaire. I put on 80 to 90,000 kilometres per year, divvied up between 50 or 60 different cars. I’m supposed to be a fantastic, versatile driver.

And I am. Usually.

The other week I was having a regular day with nothing strange going on and nothing particularly pressing or preoccupying on my mind. I was driving a Ford Focus ST and needed a break from my computer – so I decided to go to the gym, as I often do.

I slid Oakleys onto my ugly mug, pulled on my baseball cap (backwards, of course) tossed my gym bag into the hatch, and buckled up as I chugged away on some disgusting cardboard-tasting sludge disguised as a protein shake.

Phone? Check. Headphones? Check. Wallet? Check. Ready to proceed to the Goodlife down the road to blast my quads and maybe flex in the mirror a little? Check. Just kidding.

I engaged reverse and backed out of the driveway as I always do: eight feet backwards in a straight line, cut the wheel to avoid bottoming out on the culvert bump, and proceed perfectly into my lane before setting off.

What happened next was a huge slap in the face – and something I’m still, a few weeks later, angry at myself about.

Once in the roadway, I jammed the brakes, full rip, stopping the yellow hot hatch hard enough to slosh protein sludge all over the console. I said a bad word, very loudly, too.

I was in my lane, in the road. Perfectly. All was quiet.

But, en route there, I was staring at the back-up camera screen, as I usually do when I reverse out of my driveway. Thing is, the tester didn’t have a back-up camera.

2013 Audi S7Yada Rear-view Mirror
In-car camera systems. Click image to enlarge

So, I, Justin Pritchard, had backed out into the road entirely while looking at my present radio station, climate settings and navigation map on the Ford Sync screen. On some subconscious level in my brain, I was expecting the car to tell me if I needed to stop or pay attention.

Glance around. No angry traffic flipping me off. No stunned pedestrian wondering why I’d nearly smushed them. Nothing busted up sitting under the tire. Neighbor-guy’s blue box was still standing – though if it had eyes, it would’ve been giving me a dirty look.

Admittedly I live on a quiet street, and encountering obstacles when backing out is rare.

Still, I’m a moron. Why hadn’t I looked? Why had I backed blindly into what could have been oncoming traffic or a family out for a stroll?

Force of habit had led me to make a stupid, stupid mistake. I’ve been pampered. Many new cars will show you an obstacle or at least beep if you’re about to back into something. The Focus ST doesn’t. And this over reliance on driver assistance had just turned your writer into a very bad driver.

I’ve always questioned the need for things like Lane Departure Warnings and Blind Spot Monitoring. On one hand, they could prevent an accident in some situations, so that’s all fine and well. But, on the other hand, I’m now living proof that assist systems like these, and back-up cameras, might be supporting a new breed of bad drivers.

And hell. I’m 31. I grew up and learned to drive before there was such a thing as a back-up camera or blind-spot warning alarm. I know the importance of being attentive and present to your own driving. Knowing what’s around you at all times. Being aware of the goings on in the world around you.

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But, electronic warnings had taken that from me. And, sadly, there are millions more like me out there, too.

What happens when my kids, and those of my fellow thirtysomethings, learn to drive surrounded by ‘assist’ systems that do the looking around for them? Scary thought.

Drive carefully, folks. I’ll try harder, too.

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