Category Archives: smartphones

It Takes An Island: Hawaii & Smartphone Distraction

Pedestrian Safety Month
HDOT- 2017

It takes an island to do something about transport and smartphone distraction.

Visitors to Hawaii often take home a colorful shirt or bikini, a lei, or macadamia nuts. Now, however, they can come home with some lessons on smartphones, traffic safety, and multi-modal planning. The island of Oahu is moving forward with  initiatives that will encourage alternative modes of transportation. The first program gives some weight to an issue that National Safety Council advertises every April, but wishes that the public pay attention to all year: distracted driving. With a tropical twist, Honolulu will become the first city to ban walking with a cell phone. The motto for the program is “Don’t Walk and Cross.”  

The initiative prohibits pedestrians from using cell phones and other electronic devices when they are crossing a street. The initial fines are relatively minor, between $15 and $35, with a potential cap of $99. The Councilman who sponsored the bill observed that Hawaii is ranked 13th in pedestrian deaths. Additionally, the Honolulu police supported the legislation.

In public testimony, a high school teacher noted that “students are putting themselves at a high risk for potential injuries because they are being distracted by their devices,” and a young student from Waipahu High School  endorsed the bill because, “using a cellphone while crossing the street is just as dangerous as using a cellphone while driving… the (bill) builds awareness and educates others…” Opponents of the bill wanted to spend public funds on  infrastructure improvements instead and called the bill a government overreach. In their view, motorists should be regulated, not pedestrians.

The second program on Oahu is a bike share. Tourists and residents can now check out 1000 Biki bikes distributed over 100 locations. The cost is just $3.50 per hour or $20.00 for 5 hours. Advocates claim these bikes will cut down on congestion. Critics, on the other hand, argue that the rental bikes could worsen traffic as inexperienced riders share the road with buses, tourist trolleys, cars, mopeds, other bikers, and of course, pedestrians.  

It is unknown whether the smartphone legislation grew in tandem with the biking initiative. The legislation that prohibits smartphone use has a sister clause for vehicles: motorists, including bikers, are prohibited from using handheld phones during their trip (except for GPS), as well as from wearing headphones or other electronics. So, pedestrians  and bikers now have an important role in shifting public opinion on texting and driving. If they are serious about pedestrian safety, Hawaii could also take an island-wide approach to outlaw right on red turns, reduce vehicle speed limits, and increase the length of ped-crossing intervals.

Perhaps the pedestrian cell phone use ban in Honolulu will start a movement. If locals and tourists feel safer and it proves to reduce accidents, the concept will spread. The new legislation may remind smartphone users at large that they need to pay attention to their immediate environment, whether they are on foot or behind the wheel. It is important to note that distracted driving in Hawaii is a considerable offense. Unlike other states, Hawaii takes a tough stance: it bans texting and hand held phones. However, like the mainland, it has yet to prohibit the use of hands-free smartphones in cars. There seems to be a legislative resistance everywhere to the statistical evidence that hands free-devices are dangerous in vehicles.

It will be interesting to see how Honolulu chooses to roll out the smartphone ban that begins on October 25th. Will they publicize the new legislation widely, and make people aware of it through a soft-sell approach, perhaps a parody on “enjoy Oahu, hand in hand, not hand on phone”.  The statewide poster (see image) from Pedestrian Safety Month and the Girl Scouts gives some indication that a soft-sell approach can be successful. Alternatively, Hawaii could promote the new law with a campaign that focuses on the health-risks, akin to anti-smoking messages from the American Cancer Society. Initiating the message at school crossings may be the first priority.

As the program gains momentum, pedestrians need to believe that Honolulu is strict on safety for all transportation modes, not just singling out lowly walkers. Tourists will surely be surprised if they end up with an official warning, or perhaps a small fine, as they stroll Honolulu. These smartphone wielding tourists might learn a new lesson and carry it with them back to the mainland along with their other souvenirs.

Distracted Driving Needs a Slogan- MADD II

We don’t get in cars with drunk drivers, but why do we persist in driving with someone talking on a cell phone?

April was ‘Distracted Driving Month’ and most drivers probably encountered at least one public service ad or safety warning. While the advertising campaign is thirty days long, the problem persists throughout the year. Over a twelve month period, there will be nearly 3,500  traffic deaths, and 400,000 traffic injuries associated with distracted driving per the National Highway Traffic  Safety Administration.

The real accident rate, the underlying numbers, are much larger. It is difficult for police officers at a traffic scene to code for distraction. Unlike wearing a seatbelt or testing for alcohol use, cell phone distraction is not obvious. There is no simple way to know whether a cell phone was involved in a crash and it is difficult to obtain telco calling records. Drivers often forget, or are unwilling to talk about their phone use, and witnesses are not a good source of information.

Whatever the coding, traffic deaths are the number one public health issue and take a larger toll than we realize. One sobering statistic comes from Israel, which is positioning itself as a leader in autonomous cars: since 1948, 35,000 people have died on Israel’s roads compared with 25,000 in war and terror attacks.

While cars are getting safer,  accidents due to distracted driving are on the increase. Yet the outcry about distracted driving seems to be fading (except in April). Most people would think twice about getting in a car with someone who has been drinking, yet someone using a cell phone is more at risk. A widely quoted study in Human Factors cited that a driver talking on a cell phone is more impaired that someone with a blood alcohol level exceeding 0.08.

At least three methods have been used to control distracted driving, none of them fully successful. The first method, which might be called a countermeasure, works directly on the source, the phone. The app is able to control and halt incoming calls and text messages. The apps also turn off notifications and alerts that could distract a driver or tempt to use their phone. Most of these  apps are free, but have found few followers. Even parents of teenagers, who could track their teenager’s cell phone use in real time, seem resistant to the counter-measure.  When Auto-Shut Down apps were recommended by the former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in 2010, critics countered that the police use text when they drive, and the apps represented an over-reach of federal government.

A second approach has been public awareness campaigns, like the one in April from the National Safety Council. There is an advantage here as people can be reached where the distraction is occurring; namely in their cars. Billboards and radio seem to be an underutilized medium. Distracted driving has not received resources that have gone into publicizing similar, year-long,  in-vehicle campaigns like “Buckle Up for Safety” and “Don’t Drive and Drive”. The NHTSA has responded with the U word: “U Drive, U Text, U Pay.”

A third approach has been legislation. The key problem is that cell phone bans are hard to enforce and traffic officers seldom pull over offenders. No state outlaws all cell phone use for drivers, despite a recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board to ban texting while driving, and the placing of hands-free calls. 38 states ban all cell phone use by new drivers, and 14 states prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving. That legislation is perhaps drafted by public servants who observe their own behavior in cars, and anticipate that if it safe for them, it is safe for others.

One reason legislation lags is because people intuitively like to use their phones in cars, and they want to believe that hands free technology is safe. The counter argument, from research in cognitive science, is that cell phone conversations are detrimental to driving. Cell phone conversations keep drivers from paying full attention to the road and it also reduces their visual field. After following 100 vehicles over one year with specially equipment, researchers at the Virginia Tech Transport Institute  found that nearly eighty percent of crashes and sixty-five percent of near-crashes involved driver inattention up to three seconds before the event. Their in-car cameras recorded the source of the distraction, and, of course, it was frequently the cell phone.

There is currently a push to install hands-free phones that would eliminate the need to reach for a phone, or text while holding the steering wheel. While these intuitively seem to help, they do not reduce the cognitive burden for drivers. Vehicle dashboards with speech-recognition and  touch-screen systems distract drivers, in new and unknown ways.  It could be argued that over time, these systems will become more intuitive and drivers will get more fluent using them. In a previous blog, we compared this to the early days of car radio. An equilibrium may be reached but until then, there will be several generations of dashboard technology. Until that point, dashboard tech may cause teeth gnashing and accidents, as a humorous story in the Wall St. Journal recently noted.

Going forward, perhaps “Distracted Driving Month” will evolve into something with more staying power. “Mothers Against Drunk Driving”  might someday expand their mission to reflect the current problem, and they would not even have  to change their acronym (MADD). Meanwhile, the road to driverless cars will be filled with more distraction as drivers try to manage the intermediate dashboards.  When a fatal accident occurred in a self-driving Tesla vehicle last year, the driver was said to be in the ultimate state of distraction- watching a movie.