Driven to distraction by car owner’s manual

The Grid Spouse had been after me for several years to get a new car, even though my 1997 Toyota RAV4 was running just fine, thank you. Okay, the radio hadn’t worked for a few years. Sometimes a guy likes to be alone with his thoughts.

Rose Hobson
Rose Hobson emphasizes importance of planning before driving. (Robert Thomson – The Washington Post)

So more for domestic peace than on-road performance, I surrendered last week. The new Gridmobile is a Subaru Impreza. I name it not as a recommendation. I don’t have 50 miles on the thing yet, and anyway, that’s Warren Brown’s job. Rather, I want to use the vehicle as a benchmark in discussing the adjustments drivers need to make when going from old to new in an era when many of us hold onto our cars for a decade or more.

A coincidence sensitized me to such concerns. During the car purchase week, I also sat in on a driver safety course in Camp Springs sponsored by AARP. That was for a future story about helping older drivers stay on the road. But as I listened to the lively and engaging presentation by instructor Rose Hobson, several things occurred to me: It’s been a long, long time since driver’s ed, so it’s not a bad idea to get a refresher on what a vehicle can and can’t do.  The recent changes in car electronics are dramatic. And over the years, physical changes that affect driving skills can be just as significant.

The Impreza is a relatively simple car to understand. My sales consultant told me it would take about 15 minutes to explain. Some other fancier vehicles with navigation, cameras and crash-avoidance systems might take 45 minutes or more to review before the new owner drives off the lot.

About once a minute during my 15-minute orientation came the plea: “Read the owner’s manual.” Honestly, who reads the owner’s manual? Many people will just consult the shorter pamphlet that constitutes an executive summary. Or call back the dealership and ask for a playback of the original explanation on some new feature.

But I still had Hobson’s consciousness-raising session in mind. So over three days, I read the 13 big fat chapters of the full manual for a simply equipped new car.

These are a few of the many things that were different.

The key. The 1997 Toyota came with a key. That’s so 20th century. The new version of a key is a battery powered transmitter immobilizer locator entry system. It takes 13 pages to explain. In my 1997 manual, the key got one page. Young people used to worry about a time when their aging parents might need to give up their car keys. That sounds so quaint. Now it’s a matter of how long they can handle their remote entry transmitters.

Instrument panel. In the 1997 manual, I count references to 15 indicator and warning lights. That includes turn signal indicators, low gas warning, high beam alert and so on. In the 2014 manual, I have a list of 30 lights. They include the hill start assist warning light, the Vehicle Dynamics Control warning light, the Vehicle Dynamics Control off indicator, the windshield washer fluid warning light and the low tire pressure warning light. It’s a challenge just to spot all the lights that turn on, then go off during a normal start. The familiar old needle gauges have evolved to include a fuel efficiency indicator.

Audio system. The 1997 manual takes nine pages to explain the radio and tape player, including a section on caring for your cassettes. (We did upgrade the audio system.) The audio instructions for the new car take up 51 pages. That includes instructions on how to control the system from the steering wheel, pairing an iPhone with the car’s Bluetooth, scrolling iPod playlists, installing USB and auxiliary cables and using the hands-free phone.

As I sat in the car and made the necessary adjustments to radio, phone and iPod, I realized that I had done one smart thing: I was parked in my driveway. If I had attempted any of that on the road, it would have been disastrous. No one can multitask like that.

The Post’s Lori Aratani just wrote that nearly 1,600 motorists were cited for distracted driving violations during April in a Maryland State Police campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of texting or using a handheld phone while driving. But Hobson noted that distracted driving comes in many forms, and distracted drivers come in all ages. Distractions include fiddling with the radio buttons or peering at a map.

She spent a lot of time in her driving class going over the importance of preparing yourself and your vehicle for a trip. She also showed the class a chart many of us haven’t seen since driver’s ed. It’s the one that showed a driver covers 268 feet — almost a football field — when reacting and hitting the brakes to stop at 60 mph.

Cars are getting smarter in a hurry. Features that used to be add-ons are becoming standard, while enhanced navigation and crash-warning systems are being offered as accessories. Drivers of all ages want them. Older drivers see the enhanced safety features as key to keeping their cars even as some physical abilities decline. Younger drivers are comfortable with the electronics outside the car and see no reason they shouldn’t be available inside the car.

That’s mostly good, as long as drivers are willing to invest the time in learning how to handle this rapidly evolving environment before stepping on the accelerator.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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