Expert Blog

How gadgets are driving us to distraction – and an early grave

Remember the Japanese Tamgotchi craze of the Noughties? Remember how we all laughed at the foolishness and childishness of the little hand-held digital pet that demanded constant attention and ‘feeding’, otherwise it would ‘die’?

Well, we’ve all got one now – but we call it a ‘smartphone’. And it’s much more demanding than the old Tamagotchis – so much so that they’ve convinced us that we are the ones that will die if we don’t devote ourselves to them. Smartphones are, like, totally fascinating. Soooo cool. Amazing. Literally. Seriously. Really. THIS!

Smartphones are jealous, vicious little digital pets – such fiendishly well-designed distractions that there’s very little that can compete with them. Your partner, your job, your kids and even a fast-moving, very heavy lump of metal, glass and rubber, tend to get neglected.

You might feel as though you’d die without your smartphone, but in truth your smartphone might kill you. Earlier this year a 32 year-old woman from North Carolina lost her life in a head-on collision with a recycling truck, apparently while using her phone to post on Facebook how happy Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ song made her.

Reportedly she had also uploaded selfies of herself while driving.

This kind e-distraction may be behind a sudden rise in road accident casualties. In the UK, the number of deaths on the road increased last year by 4 per cent to 1,775. The number of serious injuries increased by 5 per cent, to 22,807, and a total of 194,477 people were killed or injured – the first increase in overall casualties since 1997.

And it’s not just distracted drivers, it’s also distracted pedestrians that appear to be behind the rise. The number of accidents caused by both drivers and pedestrians ‘failing to look’ has risen by 12 per cent over the last decade, according to figures from the department of transport. Across all reported road accidents, failing to look properly by all road users was the most frequently reported single contributory factor to a crash, being named in 44 per cent of accidents, compared to 32 per cent ten years ago.

In accidents where a pedestrian was killed or injured, pedestrians failed to look properly in 59 per cent of cases. Which begs the question, how many people have been run over while staring at their phones by a driver also staring at their phone?

Road safety campaigners have blamed both drivers and pedestrians for being glued to their gadgets. Edmund King, President of the AA in addition to cautioning on how some car drivers may be becoming complacent in their increasingly comfortable, gadget-filled cars, also identified the rise of the ‘iPod zombie’ as a serious problem.

‘Pedestrians who have earplugs in or iPhones out,’ he told reporters recently. ‘They are listening to music or texting and they are not concentrating on traffic on the road. Walk down the road and 50 per cent of people are on their phones. One wonders what we did before the mobile phone. Maybe we looked around a bit more.’

Indeed. Today’s road user might be forgiven for thinking that pedestrians can’t cross the street now without updating their Twitter status as they go, gawping and jabbing at their screen as they shuffle absent-mindedly over a four lane highway, trying desperately to think of something witty to share with their online friends.

What can be done about this? The AA has called for road safety to be taught on the national curriculum. The Institute of Advanced Motorists urged the government to reintroduce road safety targets which were dropped by the coalition government in 2010. The Transport Minister Andrew Jones has reminded us that thanks to new laws there are increased penalties for using a mobile phone at the wheel: three penalty points and a £100 fine.

But I have a hunch that the only real solution to our current state of technohypnosis is going to be even more technology.

Such as the new roadside apparatus that detects when mobile phones are being used in cars. Currently being tested in Sussex, it uses a Vehicle Activated Sign (VAS) and a mobile detector which can’t be set off by pedestrians on their phones. The sign flashes a warning if a vehicle drives by with someone inside using a mobile phone. Presumably something along the lines of ‘GET A LIFE!!!’

I fear, however, that whatever the warning is it won’t be noticed until they find a way to mirror the message on the screen of the phone user.

At the moment, it can’t differentiate between a driver and a passenger, and officially the purpose of it is meant to be educational, though this may change in the future as the technology becomes more accurate. However, I personally think these i-Zombie detectors should be made less accurate – they should also flash at pedestrians staring at their phones.

Of course, the final solution to the Tamagotchi epidemic is total surrender – in the form of fully-autonomous cars, which will allow drivers to devote themselves fully, legally and safely to fiddling with their phones when on the road. At the moment however we’re stuck in a transitional period, where the technology has made driving deceptively easier, our cars more boring, and our phones impossible to ignore – but we’re still supposed to be fully present and in charge.

Frankly speaking, too often we’re not.

Once widely-introduced, driverless cars are estimated to be likely to reduce deaths on the road by up to 90 per cent. Of the three Google driverless cars involved in accidents during testing in the last six months, human error was found to be at fault in 100 per cent of them. Usually they were rear-ended by distracted humans.

Probably updating their Facebook page with a photo of a Google car. 

 

Guest blogger Mark Simpson, journalist, writer and broadcaster

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