If you must smoke, eat, drink, talk, text or twitter, do not do it whilst driving – please!
My seventeen year old daughter is about to join our driving fraternity after passing her test. I have discussed with her that although everyone thinks it is “cool” to belong to the most mobile society in the world the price we pay for this “pleasure” is a stubbornly high number of road deaths. On average (when not in recession) 3,200 people die on British roads each year affecting tens of thousands of friends and relatives. I have pleaded with her to focus only on driving when driving. Read More…
Teenagers are the most vulnerable group on the road. Teenage motorists, easily “distracted” from watching the road ahead by an urge to phone friends, send text messages and search for songs on portable music-players, are the most worrisome factor in the epidemic of “distracted driving” that has plagued the roads in recent years.
In 2008 one in six of the teenagers killed in car crashes was found to have been “distracted”, in one way or another, just prior to impact. Five years ago, the figure was one in eight. We should all fear that the number of teenage deaths caused by “distraction whilst driving” is about to explode, due to the variety of gizmos about to invade the car.
To put it bluntly, “distracted driving” is a menace to society. Last year 16% (>500 souls) of overall fatalities were due to “driver distraction”. The country is growing incensed that over the past seven years, we have lost 220 soldiers in Afghanistan yet we seem to live with the fact that during that time more than 20,000 British car occupants have been killing each other! It is not always the fault of the driver!
A study published in July by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute showed that drivers who text whilst driving increase their risk of a crash or near-crash 23-fold compared with those who do not. Reaching out for something moving inside the car represents a nine-fold increase in risk; dialling, a six-fold increase; combing hair or putting on make-up raises the risk almost fivefold. (Hannah please note!!)
In a previous study, Virginia Tech found that 80% of crashes and 65% of near-crashes involved some form of distraction within three seconds of the incident. The most common distraction by far was using a hand-held phone.
Banning the use of hand-held phones and other gizmos whilst driving is fine, however, in doing so, the inference is that it is then fine for motorists to use hands-free devices to make calls whilst on the road. However, hands-free have problems, too. My in-car navigation system intercepts incoming calls to my mobile phone and automatically plays them through the vehicle’s audio system. Using simple voice commands, I can also dial out, hands-free, to people listed in my phone’s address book.
Although there is no physical distraction, I find myself having to compensate for the extra cognitive workload involved in even a hands-free telephone conversation. I am sure I am not the only one trying to multi-task whilst driving, I unconsciously slow down or speed up especially when I am “emotional” and let us face it, most phone calls are “emotional” and, in the process, I become a greater hazard to other road users. If the conversation gets tense or complicated, I may have to pull over to the side of the road and stop. Do I bother, am I bothered, do I think I can cope with this? Both hands may be on the steering wheel, and the eyes scanning the road ahead and the mirrors all round, but the brain is elsewhere.
Cognitive researchers at Carnegie Mellon University reckon that just listening to a conversation can reduce activity in the region of the brain associated with spatial and visual-information processing (the part used for driving) by as much as 37%. Cognitive “distraction” causes drivers to focus on a narrow space ahead, with little awareness of what is going on around them—something researchers call “inattentional blindness”. This is what causes motorists to miscalculate distances and drive too close to the car ahead.
Modern motorists may live in a multi-tasking age, but few people can actually do two things at once without skimping on one, or both, of them. It takes a great deal of training and practise to become a genuine multi-tasker. Concert pianists, who strive for complete independence of movement for each hand, are among the very few to achieve it. Even our Advanced Driving Test training does not have quite the same intensity!
Everyone else does time-sharing instead, constantly switching from one task to another. However, the switching itself takes time—typically, a second or so—while the brain refocuses attention back to the previous task. Get interrupted during that dead instant (a sudden splash of mud on the windscreen will suffice) and the brain can revert to what it was doing before—say, operating a phone instead of checking the road ahead—and thereby overlook the pedestrian who has stepped out onto the road. How often have you heard drivers claim they never saw the object they hit? I have often thought I must be near a town and then realized that I had been through it, am I the only one?
The issue is thus not whether Britain should have banned the use of mobile phones whilst driving. That is really a “no-brainer”. Moreover, cheap technology can be installed in motor vehicles that block certain phone functions, such as texting and dialling, whilst the operator is driving. The bigger issue is how to devise still better means for guiding a motorist’s attention. Manufacturers have made great progress developing driver aids that nudge a drowsy or “distracted motorist” that is drifting out of lane, or getting too close to the car ahead and failing to notice it is braking hard. I have been in all of those places and evidently had my Guardian Angel looking over me, I have been fortunate!
The question is whether piling additional technology on the “attention” problem will save lives. Yes and no. The last thing motorists need is yet more gadgets in vehicles to distract them still further. Nevertheless, if the technology is installed to augment their attention, rather than challenge it, then perhaps the growth of “driver distraction” may yet be contained and lives saved.
My point is that when we are in control of a machine capable of killing we should take absolute responsibility and accountability for it and I believe that means “no anything” apart from full focus on driving. I am not preaching here, I have committed all of the above sins; however, I would like to learn from my mistakes and influence others, as I do not want my daughter and her friends to become another sad statistic!