The Worst Customer Experience in the World?

40,000 Americans are killed every year by a legal product made and sold in America.

This qualifies as the single worst customer experience.

I’m not talking customer frustrations because the wifi is spotty, the airplane is late, or the cell phone service is bad and expensive at the same time.

I’m not talking about the problems we face from products that are too complicated or websites that are too hard to use.

I’m talking about death. End times. Total ruin.

We scream when Netflix raises the price for our monthly subscriptions but are silent about the single worst customer experience in the world.

I’m talking about that wonderful invention that Americans love: the automobile and the many thousands of people killed every year on American roads.

Why do we tolerate the terrible side effects of this product?

Ironically – or tragically – it is the dangers of the car that kicked off the modern customer experience movement when Ralph Nadar published Unsafe at any Speed in the 1960s. That book led to some changes but not enough. Some people have been saved from death but 40,000 still die.

I have pondered this dilemma since my high school driver’s ed class taught me that 50,000 Americans died every year (those were the numbers back in the 80s).

David Leonhardt in the New York Times reported that a judge and legal scholar at Yale asks his students if they would tolerate a wonderful invention that, despite its benefits, killed thousands of people.

As a progressive activist in the 1980s, I conducted a similar thought experiment.

I asked my friends this:

What if there were a wondrous invention that people loved – and the only drawback of this wondrous life-changing invention was that *every* year the same number of Americans would be killed that were killed in the entire long-running Vietnam War?

Would they be willing to pay that price for a truly wonderful invention?

When they said no back in the 1980s, I would then say this: We have a Vietnam War every year on the roads of America – why are we not seeing major demonstrations, Presidents stepping down, campus unrest?

Where are the poets, the painters, the hippies, the activists? Where are the songs, the new forms of music, the new wave journals and magazines?

Why do we drive to demonstrations where we protest nuclear weapons, apartheid, attacks on gay rights or women’s rights? All important issues. Yet we ignore the silent bombs that go off on our streets killing thousands.

We drive to work, to socialize, to eat, to drink, to demonstrate and we unwittingly play a kind of draft lottery with our lives.

Now, 30 years later, not enough has changed. Yes, we’ve lowered the kill rate but it has recently increased dramatically due to distracted driving.

Last year the rate of vehicle deaths jumped 14%. 40,000 died. Thousands of families were devastated. And there were no peace vigils for the 40,000 dead in 2016.

Everyone is implicated in this tragedy: auto manufacturers, regulators, politicians, and, yes, us consumers. Our dedication to our smartphones has led to the recent increase in deaths.

I know that autonomous vehicles hold the promise of potentially solving this problem. I discuss that in my AI and Customer Experience talks. But, frankly, that promise is still years away.

Today, in 2017, when we see an accident, we might think for a moment – “that could be me” – but then we look down at our phones and drive on.