Cell Phones and Driving: The Plot Thickens

August 23, 2012

Because of the enormous popularity of cell phones, and the continuing development of these devices to be “smarter” and include more features, many states have enacted restrictions on the use of cell phones while driving.  A common rule forbids texting or the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.  (It’s not clear that these restrictions would address the entire problem; as I’ve noted in an earlier post, there is some evidence that just talking on a cell phone is more distracting than one might think.)  Although these new rules have apparently reduced drivers’ cell phone use to some extent, they do not seem to have reduced accident rates significantly.

My initial reaction, when I read about this, is that perhaps the drivers who had been using cell phones just switched to some other distraction: eating lunch, smacking the kids, or just playing with one of the other electronic toys that are increasingly common in automobiles.  I have personally observed people driving on expressways doing a variety of activities: reading a book, rummaging through a briefcase for papers, and playing the cornet, just to pick a few.

A new study, reported at the Science Now site, suggests a slightly different explanation for the steady accident rate.

You can take the driver away from the cell phone, but you can’t take the risky behavior away from the driver. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which finds that people who talk on their phones while driving may already be unsafe drivers who are nearly as prone to crash with or without the device.

In other words, the hypothesis is that unsafe drivers are more likely to use cell phones behind the wheel, thereby compounding their incompetence.

Researchers at MIT first asked the 108 drivers included in the study about their typical cell phone usage while driving, their attitudes toward speeding and passing other vehicles, and their driving records.  The participants then took a 40-minute test drive (no cell phones allowed!), on an Interstate highway, i na specially instrumented vehicle.  As a group, the self-reported frequent cell phone users exhibited more risky driving behavior.

Frequent cell phone users, for example, zoomed along about 4.4 kilometers per hour faster on average and changed lanes twice as often, compared with rare users.

The differences observed were not enormous, but  may indicate a higher tolerance for risk taking.  This study used a relatively small sample, but other surveys have produced similar results.

“We have seen the same correlations in our Traffic Safety Culture Index,” says Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, an independently funded charitable research and education organization established by the American Automobile Association. The index surveys more than 3100 people each year. The foundation wants to change driver behavior, a challenge more complex than banning phones, he says.

I think the evidence for the proposition that cell phone use is distracting is fairly solid; this research identifies an additional way in which safety can be affected.   As Mr. Kissinger says, changing driver behavior is a challenging task.  One good start would be to try to convince drivers that they are not in a competition.  I think the most important point, though, is one that I made a few years ago in an article I wrote on safe cycling:

The best safety rule is this: don’t crash. The best way to avoid crashing is to focus 100 percent of your attention 100 percent of the time on riding safely.

You may be a bit more protected in a car, but you are probably moving faster; I think the advice works pretty well for driving, too.

Flushed with Pride*

August 23, 2012

A number of people in the technology world, your scribe included, have been known to make disparaging remarks from time to time about some of Mr. Bill Gates’s business practices and views of technology.  However, I will be the first to commend him for the really constructive way in which he has chosen to use some of his wealth.  The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a charity established by Gates, has taken a leading role in supporting and promoting global health initiatives, notably in the efforts against malaria and AIDS.

The Foundation has now set its sights on a new target: plumbing fixtures.  Specifically, as an article at Wired reports, it has launched a competition to design a new toilet, one that might be suitable for the roughly 40% of the world’s population (about 2.6 billion people) who cannot use our familiar toilet design, because they lack the infrastructure (e.g., water supplies) needed to use them.

The challenge: Create a toilet that doesn’t rely on piped water, sewer, or electrical connections. And while you’re at it, fashion something useful from the waste that goes in. Energy and water might be nice. Do it all for $0.05 per user per day, and you might win a $100,000 prize.

Those of us who live in the US or other wealthy countries will probably have a certain tendency to snicker at a project like this.  I think, though, we would do well to remember that a significant amount of the progress in human health that has been made in the developed world happened as the result of civil engineering.  Even in the 19th century, London, certainly one of the most developed cities in the world at the time, suffered regular cholera epidemics before the completion of a new sewer system following the Great Stink of 1858.

The winning design from this first round of the competition is definitely ingenious.  As a post on the “Babbage” blog at The Economist explains,

The winning toilet, however, is smarter still. It has been developed by Michael Hoffman of the California Institute of Technology, and has earned him the $100,000 first prize. Dr Hoffman’s toilet uses solar panels to power an electrochemical system that produces two things. One is hydrogen. The other is a compound which oxidises the salts in urine to generate chlorine. This creates a mildly disinfecting solution that can be used to flush the toilet. The hydrogen is suitable for cooking or for powering a fuel cell to produce electricity. The solid residue from the process can be employed as fertiliser.

All of this is good stuff.  However, as a post on the “Wired Science” blog at Wired points out, more than technology may be required to change long-ingrained habits.  For very poor people, immediate concerns (where is my next meal coming from?) tend to trump longer-term health benefits.  Once a good technology is developed, there is still a good deal of work to be done to make  it a socially-approved choice.


*The title of this post is also the title of  Wallace Reyburn’s biography of Thomas Crapper, a Victorian era plumber and vendor of plumbing fixtures.  Contrary to popular lore, he did not invent the flush toilet, but did help popularize it.  Thomas Crapper & Co opened the world’s first showroom for plumbing fixtures and “sanitary ware” in the King’s Road in London.



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