Chris Harris August 04, 2012
Photo: iStock, digitally altered image.
Research has found mobile phones are interrupting our concentration at the wheel. So what are we doing about the problem?
There's a killer lying on the seat beside you in the car. It's small, fits snuggly in your hand and is increasingly worrying car makers and legislators alike as they try to stop it spreading its harmful influence.
It's your mobile phone. And next time you glance at it while driving, you're four times more likely to be involved in a serious crash.
Using a phone while driving is just as dangerous as jumping behind the wheel with a highly illegal blood alcohol content of .08, a South Australia Police study claims. And as phones become smarter, we're becoming more addicted to them - well, some of us.
Worryingly, it's the younger, more inexperienced but technologically savvy drivers heavily engaged in the growing phenomenon of social media - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, for example - who are most at risk. And the problem is only going to get worse as smartphones become more connected to our lives, authorities warn.
Victoria's Transport Accident Commission (TAC) released research that shows that more than a third of drivers aged 18 to 25 said they were likely to read a text message while driving and one in five was likely to write one. This compares with just 11 per cent of drivers aged 40-60 who said they were likely to read a text. And less than 5 per cent were likely to write one.
The chief executive officer of TAC, Janet Dore, says the admissions are disturbing. ''Young people are already vulnerable due to their lack of experience behind the wheel, so the last thing they need is another unnecessary distraction,'' Dore says.
The road safety body's data reveals that only 15 per cent of young drivers believe using a mobile phone while driving to be extremely dangerous, compared with almost half of older drivers.
''The research tells us that younger drivers don't believe the consequences of their actions while driving will be too bad, yet they are the ones who are over-represented in the road toll,'' Dore says.
In NSW alone, the number of mobile phone-related fines handed out to younger drivers has almost quadrupled in the past four years, police say, giving an indication of how fast the problem is growing.
''We've had two recent fatalities where the drivers involved have been seen with their heads down texting away … [and] their phones have been recovered with half-written text messages on them,'' the NSW operations manager for Traffic and Highway Patrol Command, Inspector Phillip Brooks, says.
''And yet, I'll see at least 10 people talking on their phones while driving each day.''
Why, then, are we using the mobile phone in the car?
Idle time behind the wheel is being viewed as unproductive, and thus an opportunity to maintain contact with the office, home and friends, the TAC says. In addition to talking and texting, many drivers are diverting their attention to more complex tasks such as sending emails and status updates.
It is a phenomenon known widely as ''driver distraction'' - things that happen in the car around our field of vision, which may divert us from the critical, core task of driving safely.
Driver distractions have been described in the US as a ''national epidemic'' and Australian police authorities are calling for harsher penalties and greater awareness to reduce the illegal, but largely ignored, behaviour that isn't viewed as dangerous as drink-driving.
''We need to look at the second offence as a much severer penalty - it's about deterrence, not fining people,'' the NSW Police Assistant Commissioner for Traffic and Highway Patrol, John Hartley, says. ''If they're worried about it, they won't do it.
''Some car manufacturers, such as Ford in the US, are equipping cars to disable some phone functionality while on the move and I think phone manufacturers need to look at the way their phones are programmed as well.''
And therein lies a crucial issue. Car makers say forcing phones connected to the car - and controlled by the car's controls rather than the phone directly - to be disabled, will encourage people to work directly from the smaller phone screen. Phone makers also argue it's not their responsibility how their devices are used in a moving vehicle.
Other than surveys, accurate data about how many crashes are caused by people using a phone while driving is difficult to find. And while authorities are quick to provide statistics about how much more dangerous using a phone while driving is, the road toll figures don't paint the same picture.
A boom in smartphone numbers hasn't resulted in a spike in deaths of younger road users. Since 2007 the number of 17- to 25-year-olds killed on the roads has dropped 26.4 per cent. The overall road toll is down 19.4 per cent.
Australian police forces are catching up with technology by increasingly sourcing phone records for all serious crashes and even forensically examining phones with greater efficiency to determine whether a driver was using it at the time of accident.
Apple is looking to help solve the problem of driver distractions with a new automotive integration of its Siri voice control system, called Eyes Free, on the iPhone's iOS 6 operating system due later this year.
The tech giant, which has a history of being secretive about upcoming models, has to date teamed up with nine car makers, including Audi, BMW, Chrysler, General Motors, Honda, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota.
At the press of a button you'll be able to ask Siri questions or perform various functions such as calling contacts, controlling music, hearing and dictating text messages, and get turn-by-turn directions without taking your eyes off the road.
The director of electrical for Holden, Paul Gibson, agrees that more intuitive voice recognition will become more prevalent in its vehicles next year.
''There's a big push to get better infotainment in vehicles,'' Gibson says. ''Our task as car makers is to make the technology seamless. If you've got a smartphone, obviously, you've got your life on it, so how do we bring that into the car? Watch this space because we'll see some big improvements on distraction-less driving.''
AAMI's latest Crash Index Study indicates that while children and pets continue to distract drivers (34 per cent and 17 per cent respectively), the increasing number of gadgets in vehicles and the broadening capabilities of smartphones are giving drivers even more reasons to take their eyes off the road.
It found the most common distractions were satellite-navigation units and lost concentration while changing music (35 per cent), talking on a mobile phone (23 per cent), sending and reading text messages (22 per cent) and using phones to access the internet and email (9 per cent).
An NRMA study challenged a number of drivers to write a text message while driving on a closed circuit. It revealed a driver travelling at 60km/h will glance at their phone for 22 metres at a time - almost five car lengths.
''People clearly have an appetite for mobile phones and their convenience of immediate communication,'' NRMA research centre senior manager Robert McDonald says.
''But drivers need to resist the urge of sending and reading that message when it comes through.
''It is not only dangerous for the driver, but also passengers and other road users.''
Alarmingly, the NRMA also found that one in four drivers admitted they are updating their status or tweeting while driving - up from one in 10 last year.
The director of Monash University Accident Research Centre, Professor Mark Stevenson, says vehicle distractions are getting out of hand as we become more reliant on technologies such as satellite navigation, audio and television systems while digesting important road information.
''If we're not … putting systems in place that prevent a level of information or communication occurring inside the vehicle, then we've got a global problem,'' Prof Stevenson says.
''If you look at industry and the management of fleet vehicles, such as Telstra, it prohibits all employees using mobile phones whilst driving. You will be fired if you're caught driving and talking on a mobile phone and that should be adhered to across the entire driving population.''
The TAC's senior manager of road safety and marketing, John Thompson, says there are already immediate solutions such as affordable smartphone apps that can detect when the car is moving and automatically disable some of your phone's functionality and switch to voice activation.
''If you've got a problem with nomophobia, or fear of being disconnected from your mobile phone, then stick it in the boot or turn it off while you're driving,'' Thompson says. ''If car makers are promoting the use of updating your Facebook account while you're driving then I think that's ridiculous. No one should be updating their Facebook or checking in via Foursquare while they're hurtling along any road in this country or anywhere on the planet.''
But luxury car-maker Mercedes-Benz denies the high-tech connectivity that is one of the headlines of its all-new A-Class range is a danger to drivers.
Due early next year, the compact Mercedes is set to become the first car on the market with full iPhone connectivity including news delivered to drivers and the ability to send social media updates to friends. Android and other smartphone system compatibilities will follow soon after.
''They see the car as an appliance,'' the senior manager of corporate communications at Mercedes-Benz Australia, David McCarthy, says.
''Engineers got young people involved early in the car's development and the thing that mattered most to them was the ability to integrate their smartphones and devices into the car, so that became a central plank of development.''
Mercedes says it has worked hard to ensure the car meets all current regulations - including strict ones in some US states - and holds any distracting information, including social media functionality, until the car is stationary. Most of the content is blocked when the car is moving, or at least reverts largely to voice activation, relying on Apple's Siri software.
''The fact is the market wants it, but we say that responsibility of controlling the vehicle lies with the driver and we don't recommend using those features whilst they're driving,'' McCarthy says.