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Driven To Distraction

OK, so they’re cracking down on people using cellphones in cars as well as cracking down on high speeds and breaking the speed limit.  Here, you’ve got to admit that there’s some justification for doing this.  After all, if someone’s got their eyes and fingers all over the phone, he or she is paying less attention to the road ahead and what their vehicle’s doing.

On the surface, it seems so simple.  The thinking works something like this: although vehicles and roads are being designed to be safer, crash rates aren’t improving and we’re still seeing heaps of fatal and serious accidents on our roads.  At the same time, mobile phones – to say nothing of smartphones – have stopped being the plaything of rich businesspeople and are now essentials for everybody over the age of 13 or so.  People can’t seem to leave their phones alone and we’ve all seen people driving badly while talking on the phone. (Mr Grey Toyota  who didn’t give way to me while coming out of the supermarket carpark, forcing me to jam on the brakes to avoid hitting you when I had the right of way, I’m thinking about you!  I saw you with your phone on your ear the whole time.)

However, maybe it’s not quite so simple as merely having people trying to do two things at once and pay attention to a conversation while driving.  After all, people have talked to other people while driving without having accidents for ages.  Receiving messages from the dispatchers and other patrol cars via radio has never made the police bad drivers – just think of all the telecommunication gadgetry they’ve had in their vehicles for decades.  Truckies and bus drivers have also had a long history of using CB radios to chat while driving – I’m sure we’ve all got memories of riding in a bus where the driver spent most of the time talking into a handset and somehow making sense of what sounded like “worple smooshle burble wop ha ha ha” from the passenger seats.  When you stop to think about it, there isn’t really any difference between someone talking on a mobile phone and someone talking on a CB radio handset.  So why weren’t/aren’t they considered to be safety hazards?

“Oh, it’s younger drivers and those young people on their phones.” Not necessarily.  If you look around you, you can see as many older folk chatting on the phone while driving, so it’s not just a case of Kids These Days.  (Mr Grey Toyota, I’m still thinking about you.)

“But modern smartphones make you take your eyes off the road.” This is certainly true.  Anything that gets your eyes off the road is going to make you less aware of what’s going on around you.  However, even this isn’t anything new.  Before we all had navigation systems built into our cars or Google Maps on our phones, we had paper-based maps.  In fact, I’ve still got them, and it can be fun to see who gets there first: the navigator with the paper map or the other navigator in the back seat with the phone.  Paper maps, whether they came in the form of specially printed books or a scribble on the back of an envelope with a few landmarks and road names noted, were often read or glanced at by drivers while in transit.  This usually involved spreading said map out on the steering wheel, glancing down, looking up again and so on.  Nobody really blamed them for crashes the way they blame cellphones.

Even real live people called passengers having a conversation can be distracting.  One of the things that most of us parents have had to teach our kids is that Mummy/Daddy can’t look at the picture you did at school right now because he/she is driving.  It can be a hard concept for a kid to grasp but they do get it – eventually.

If you listen hard enough to the safety gurus, if you do anything other than keep your mind on your driving, keep both hands on the wheel and keep your eyes on the road ahead, you’re guaranteed to crash.  Now, they do have a point.  We do need to focus on what we’re doing and concentrate on driving.  However, we all know that continually concentrating on one thing and one thing only for long periods is extremely draining and increases fatigue.  And we’re all human and notice things in and outside the car.  This, dear friends, is why advertising companies spend heaps on roadside billboards.  They know that you’ll read them while driving.

On the topic of losing concentration and advertising billboards, there have been a few studies into the effect of billboards on road safety.  It seems that yes, those advertising hoardings are distracting drivers and contributing to advertisements.  The worst offenders, it seems, are big billboards, digital billboards that display different messages every few seconds, and billboards featuring sexy models.  There have been a number of cases from around the world, mostly to do with lingerie ads, where big billboards featuring airbrushed models in lacy knickers and bras have had to be taken down because of a noticeable increase in traffic accidents happening after the billboard goes up.  This is another argument, alongside public decency, sexualisation and objectification of women, for not having sexy billboards all over the show.  But we don’t seem to have people complaining about that as much as they do about cellphones in cars.

Now that you’ve all pulled your minds out of the gutter and stopped feeling disappointed that I didn’t provide an example (I actually want you to read this article and I’m against sexploitation)… back to the debate over whether cellphones contribute to accidents.

There is a side to cellphones, smartphones, mobile phones – whatever you want to call them – that you didn’t get with other forms of distraction, which is an argument in favour of switching them off when you’re driving and being tough on them.  This is the effect of conditioning.  Like Pavlov’s dog, we’re trained to respond instantly, almost without thinking, when we hear our ringtones or alerts or notifications going off.  It rings – we reach for it.  Trying to ignore it sometimes makes us feel anxious – it could be important!  It could be a message from my son/daughter/mum/dad/wife/husband etc. saying they’re in trouble and need help now.  Nine times out of ten, it isn’t urgent, but we still react instantly just in case.  And it’s a hard habit to break.  We just HAVE to see who’s calling or texting.  And that’s where the problem for road safety kicks in.  We reach for the phone (distraction #1) and see who it is (distraction #2) then read the text (distraction #3).  By the time we’ve done all that, anything could have happened on the road.  It’s this sort of distraction that seems to be the only explanation behind a nasty accident I witnessed recently, when a Mini crossed the centre line on a perfectly straight open road and went into a campervan.

It’s this last factor that makes the difference, in my opinion.  You can ignore the paper map (or pull over to memorize it, then focus on the road), you can use the CB radio with one hand while keeping eyes fully on the road and you can tell insensitively talkative passengers to shut up.  But because we’ve become conditioned to respond instantly to ringing phones, they’re harder to ignore.  Responding has become something of an instinct.

But you can break that habit.  It is possible.  You can even train yourself when you’re not driving.  Try counting to ten or twenty before picking up if you hear a notification go off.  Nobody’s going to die if you want a few seconds.  You won’t get fired and you won’t miss out.  In fact, if we refuse to do things Right Now Instantly, we’d probably make steps towards reducing stress levels as well as helping make the roads a safer place.

Come on – do your bit and put the phone down when you’re driving – including you, Mr Grey Toyota!