Category Archives: distracted driving

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Driver Distraction

“Amusing Ourselves to Death” is the visionary title of a book by former NYU Professor and media guru, Neil Postman. Postman was writing about film and TV, not about traffic fatalities.  He could not have imagined that  “Amusing Ourselves to Death” would be a literal title that described our roadways. It is just beginning.

The road to autonomous cars will have more casualties, as we clamor for entertainment, and demand to travel with smartphones and voice assistants.  BMW and Mini are about to introduce the Alexa to automobiles.  Cadillac and Audi will sell vehicles with Stage 2 or 3 hands-free driving.  In the not so distant future, companies might pay to send in-vehicle ads and promotions to drivers, based on knowledge of the destination. Drivers may welcome this if the ads offset their travel cost, similar to the business model used by over-the-air TV. There is synergy between cars, phones, and messages.

The synergy is easy to understand.  Within the closed confines of a car, conversation fills the space. It can seem as natural to talk with someone over the phone, as it feels to chat with the passenger sitting beside us, or in the back seat. Drivers don’t make a distinction between remote conversations and the ones they have with passengers, even though the cognitive processing skills differ. More obviously, they know that passengers react to the road…they pause, they modulate their tone of voice, and sometimes they even cry out, should they observe slowing traffic or dangerous road conditions. Passengers provide both verbal and non-verbal traffic cues, and that makes driving with a passenger safer than speaking with someone remotely, at the other end of the smartphone.

Drivers have a hard time grasping that driving and dialing are conflicting tasks. Hands free /bluetooth communications makes drivers feel safe, since they keep their hands on the wheel. They do not recognize that hands-free is not cognitive free: there is a split second shifting of focus between the conversation and the road. Most of the time, if drivers are experienced with both the road and their phones, simple, basic verbal exchanges (yes/no/when) do not seem to cause accidents. However, this assumption will be tested further as Amazon introduces its Alexa voice assistant into 2018 BMW cars and minis.  

It is noteworthy that while the diffusion of Bluetooth devices has increased and new cars have gained many more factory-installed safety features, there has still been an uptick in traffic fatalities. Between 2014 and 2016 there was a 14% increase in traffic deaths. The cause is not clear, but a common attribution is that one in four fatalities is linked to the phone.

We are now moving from an era with hands-on-the-wheel to one where messaging will be more omnipresent. Recall that the first traffic death in an autonomous vehicle occurred when a Tesla driver traveled at high speed, watching a movie. The driver failed to respond, although it was estimated, ex post, that he had 10 seconds to take back the wheel before colliding with a truck that crossed his path.

A new generation of cars, the 2018 Cadillac CT6 sedan, allow the driver to be in semi-autonomous mode, but with eyes on the road. An eye-tracking camera is mounted to the dashboard. A different system from Audi goes one step further and allows the driver to take their eyes off the road if the vehicle is on a divided road with traffic speeds under 40 mph.  Audi touts (per the WSJ)  the advantages:  “drivers can turn their attention to  “things like “ answer their email, write text messages.. or plan for their vacation.”

Spoiler: The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board)  is reviewing the self-driving Audi and has not decided if the car is road-ready.

Whether the Cadillac or the Audi models succeed, drivers continue to sit forward  and face the windshield. To escape boredom, these drivers will surely spend more time on their smartphones. Spending more smartphone time will also justify their productivity; they can take the office with them as they travel.

In the short run, smartphones will rule. We should not expect strong legislation and public education, like the kind that greatly reduced traffic fatalities from drinking and driving. Policy makers, perhaps early adopters themselves, will be reluctant to regulate hands-free.

The NTSB may still weigh in, but owners of semi-autonomous cars will be setting a new trend. They will introduce  brand new entertainment systems to vehicles, and speed up the frequency and rate of smartphone use. If drivers are more connected and less aware, their remote vehicles will need to be more responsive. Of course, current vehicles are still in beta testing so some drivers will unwittingly amuse themselves to death. Meanwhile, other connected devices like the Alexa, will make driving less tedious but they still lack the eyes and ears of a fellow passenger.

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.