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Thursday, 21 August 2008 07:27

Tech that kills!

As gadget capabilities expand, can the human mind keep up with new tech and the consequences of distraction?  I conducted my own examination.

In May last year the Transport Accident Commission launched a public awareness campaign around the dangers of using mobile phones whilst in traffic.

This followed on from the increasing observational data that distracted drivers were increasingly responsible for automobile accidents, including a high profile case where a woman killed a cyclist in 2001.  A report in the Melbourne Age detailed some of the findings:

“In December 2001, cyclist Anthony Marsh was killed by a motorist sending a text message. Mr Keogh said a woman driver also died last year when she was distracted by her mobile phone and entered an intersection when it was not her right of way. On July 2, an 18-year-old from Geraldton, in Western Australia, was jailed for 12 months after he let a friend sitting in the front passenger seat steer the car he was driving so he could read a text message. The car ran into a tree - the friend was killed. “

Since then, an observational study conducted in 2003 found; at Melbourne intersections:

* 315 drivers (2% of the drivers observed) were driving whilst using handheld mobile phones.

* The rate of mobile phone use while driving was highest in the CBD and the rates were highest among those aged 30 years and under.

* A more recent survey (2007) conducted in Victoria asked drivers to self report their use of mobile phones while driving.

o Of the 500 drivers surveyed, around a third admitted to using a handheld mobile phone while driving in the last month.

o Among 18 to 25-year-olds, usage was the highest, with 55% of people admitting to using a handheld mobile phone while driving.

o More metro drivers had used a handheld mobile phone and more males than females. Despite the high level of usage, the majority of drivers in all age groups rated the activity as dangerous.

But even since 2003, mobile technology and indeed in vehicle distractions have multiplied.  Car makers strive to shut out the outside ambience, whilst filling the inside with GPS, DVD, Bluetooth, MP3 and Internet gadgetry.

Whilst the comfort level of new cars rises, are we in danger of, despite additional air-bags, Electronic Stability Control and ABS brakes, causing more carnage on the roads?

To check if the ‘distracted driver’ message was sinking in, I conducted my own observational survey.

To quote Sir William; “No other man-made device since the shields and lances of the ancient knights fulfills a man's ego like an automobile.”  And so it seems as I cycle to and from work along the boulevards of Melbourne, observing some nice cars sitting in peak hour traffic.  There is a lot of money invested in our automobiles.

What did I do?  Over the course of a number of days, riding too and from work at some of the safer areas of the trip, I observed peak hour driver habits.

Along Lakeside Drive Albert Park – international readers will recognize this as the home of the Australian Grand Prix – and on Glen Eira Rd in Caulfield the bike riding is relatively safe.

The Google Maps links above were there to distract privacy advocates into continuing their complaint letters to Google about Street View, while I tell the rest of you that I glanced into every car that went past me on these roads.

On these stretches of roads it is a comfortable to make a sneak peak into the cosy interior of cars (sadly, mostly single occupancy - come on people, Car Pool!) as they pass relatively slowly.  On other stretches of the trip the need to watch out for opening doors of parked cars, cars pulling out of intersections, pedestrians, the occasional dog, cat or swan make it otherwise impossible.

The results, well, they may be unscientific, but alarming, given that it is against local laws to use mobile devices whilst driving.

Before I get to the actual numbers, some other observations made over the years of cycle commuting. 

* BMW vehicles are too difficult to drive.  Indicator controls are obviously too complicated to be utilised at appropriate times.

* Holding your phone on your lap whilst texting in traffic, in an attempt to hide the act from observation, does not work, or make it any safer.

* Pedestrians lost in an MP3 induced, tunnel vision world of their own, are not impervious to collisions as they step out from sidewalks.

Yes but has the habits of the average car commuter changed since the 2003 TAC observations? - Onwards to Page 3.

Okay – of the three hundred or so cars I was able to get a clean look into as they went past me during the observation period, I found that approximately 4 percent were utilising their phones. 

Of these, some I observed actually making calls whilst driving, and the split was about fifty fifty between texters versus chatters.

That’s 1 in every 20 automobiles at peak times on these roads doing something other than fully concentrating on the task at hand.

Add to this, the occasional make-up applier, sandwich gorger (BMW), sound system fiddler, handbag delver and it is clear that the level of driving ability is not soaring of late.

I have ridden past cars equipped with in dash DVD players showing movies to the driver as they traverse traffic.  And only this week I was squeezed out of the bike lane by a wayward (BMW) as the driver punched  “cyclist = 10 points” into her GPS.

Pedestrians and Cyclists are not immune to the increasing urge for travel tech.  I myself ride listening to good radio , so this is not aimed at inflaming the cycling versus automobile war.  It is just that it is rare for a distracted pedestrian to kill somebody by blundering into another person whilst talking on the phone.

All I am saying is be careful out there, and if you have a hand free and are not too distracted, give me a wave as you commute home.

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Mike Bantick

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Having failed to grow up Bantick continues to pursue his childish passions for creative writing, interactive entertainment and showing-off through adulthood. In 1994 Bantick began doing radio at Melbourne’s 102.7 3RRRFM, in 1997 transferring to become a core member of the technology show Byte Into It. In 2003 he wrote briefly for the The Age newspaper’s Green Guide, providing video game reviews. In 2004 Bantick wrote the news section of PC GameZone magazine. Since 2006 Bantick has provided gaming and tech lifestyle stories for, including interviews and opinion in the RadioactivIT section.

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