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Culture of Distraction?

Every weekly Road Rules article is simultaneously published in a number of community newspapers and online at www.roadrules.ca/.  If you have never visited this site, now that you have the link, you may want to have a look.  The ‘Home’ page has three columns.  At the top of the right-hand column is a ‘Search’ box. Enter ‘distracted driving’ in this box and you will retrieve 46 articles.

Although some of these articles show up simply because of the term’s long established inclusion in the standard list of crash factors: weather, road and vehicle conditions, speed, alcohol, drugs, fatigue and distraction, the majority—some dating back five years—are directly on point.  From scanning the various titles, you will likely conclude that the inflation of this category of crash causation is linked to the rapid universal uptake of the smartphone during the last decade.

 The rise of distracted driving from in-car cellphone use prompted a rapid response of ‘fixes.  First, we see new motor vehicle rules to define legal and illegal usage with sanctions—a mix of penalties and fines—for illegal usage.  Second, there are announcements from governments, the police, safety associations, auto insurers, motor vehicle manufactures and the media to alert, educate and motivate behavioural change.  Finally, technology comes to the rescue in an attempt to limit or control the functionality of such devices while in the driving environment.

 Lately, the answer to whether or not these fixes are working is increasingly troublesome.  For one thing the numbers are disturbing, showing in both British Columbia and Ontario that, instead of diminishing, distracted driving is capturing the top spot— ‘No.1’ killer on the roads— overtaking the traditional jostle between speed, and alcohol and drug impairment.

 Experts (people professionally focused on this issue) are also taking pains to point out that the difficulties in determining the exact causative role played by smartphone usage in any given crash, likely make these numbers vastly lower than they really are.  (How many driver’s involved in a crash would actually volunteer that “oh, by the way, I was texting at the time”?)

 There is a widely held view that the problem’s growing intractability.  Auto manufacturers admit the problem while at the same time, to keep up with the market, build in more distracting gadgetry.  Focusing on the problem, Volkswagen’s praiseworthy anti-texting and driving advertisement recently shown in Hong Kong movie theatres has been viewed 19 million times on YouTube.  However, for some of us it’s easier to learn the traffic rules now than to learn how to program, operate and interpret your in-car communications, navigation and audio/visual systems.

 We hear that psychologists and neurobiologists are speculating that our steadily increasing exposure to all of these ‘smart’ devices is changing the way we think.  Some suggest that our brains are being trained to prefer distraction over focus, quick shifting over steady concentration, disconnection over consolidation, and constant stimulation over calm reflection and repose.  (Note: whatever happens, some of us will still continue to prefer peace and quiet in contrast to an overly caffeinated lifestyle.)

 We are told that the part of the human brain that enables sustained focus, long-term planning and creative synthesis may end up neglected and that the social and economic implications of this are profoundly significant.  Road Rules can’t help but note that such new ways of ‘thinking’ may be rendering us uniquely unfit for and incapable of sustaining the type of alertness and steady focus necessary for safe driving.

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