Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

We lose control by using mobile while mobile

Picture posed

I'm lucky to be here to write this. Yesterday, while waiting in my car at the traffic lights on the Ormeau Embankment, I was nearly steamrollered by a huge white BMW, one of those ugly, ostentatious, super-sized yokes that's almost the size of a bus. The sort of thing you imagine Kim Kardashian driving, if she was slumming it a little.

South Belfast seems to be full of them. It came flying round the corner at a crazy angle, veered onto the wrong side of the road – where I was sitting – wobbled a couple of times, missed me by a whisker and roared off.

While contemplating the imminent prospect of eternity, I saw exactly what was going on. The driver of the BMW was attempting to send a text message as she was going round the corner.

She was driving with the heels of her hands while holding the phone up above the steering wheel. She could have been in another world – and we both nearly were.

Not that the driver herself noticed. She was too busy signing off from this life with xoxox and a flurry of winking emoticons.

That's the trouble with driving. When you're in the car you feel as though you're in this entirely self-contained bubble that's basically a little republic of you. You've got your favourite radio station playing, you have the air conditioning just the way you like it and the seat adjusted to the perfect angle.

It's cosy and comfortable and familiar, so it's easy to forget you're actually whizzing along in a highly crushable tin box which itself has the capacity to crush anyone and anything in its path. You're not sitting on your sofa at home, though it might feel a bit like you are.

It's this dozy complacency (below) that fools people into thinking there's no harm in sending a quick text while at the wheel, when it's actually one of the craziest things you can do.

We know this. A new study by the Transport Research Laboratory has just found that writing a text message delays reaction times by 37%. That's much worse than being whacked out on weed – cannabis slows your reactions by 21% – and even drinking to the legal limit, which diminishes responses by 13%.

Worst of all is yakking away on your mobile while driving, which comes in at 46%, cutting reaction times almost in half.

And it's amazing how many of us do it. Three in 10 of all drivers admit to sending or reading messages while driving (and that's just the ones that 'fess up), a number that rises to more than four in 10 for drivers aged 18 to 24.

I see people blattering away on their mobiles at the wheel every single day on the streets of Belfast, not normally while coming towards me at a frightening speed and angle, but still: I'll bet those figures are a highly conservative estimate.

Self-reported statistics like these always lie, because we don't like confessing to doing selfish and recklessly stupid things, especially when we haven't got caught doing them.

And the truth is that most people don't get nabbed by the cops. PSNI figures from 2009 to 2012 show a mere handful of incidents where the use of a mobile phone was proved to be the main causal factor, but the details of those that did happen are all-too-predictable: head-on collisions, squashed pedestrians, cars crashing into lampposts and traffic islands, or driving into other cars in front – just exactly what you'd expect when the person at the wheel is preoccupied with their phone at the expense of everyone else around them.

New technology proposed by Apple aims to put an end to "distracted driving", with an automated system that would detect when the phone user is driving and block the ability to send text messages, or make calls.

All very worthy and socially responsible, but there's no technological answer to this problem. We're addicted to our mobiles and, when a message pings in, many of us react as instantly as any slobbering Pavlovian dog, eager for our reward, even if we happen to be speeding down the motorway at 80 miles an hour at the time.

Resisting the lure of the phone takes self-discipline and self-control, unfashionable attributes which are increasingly bred out of us by an infantilised society.

"Want it now" is our babyish mantra, and it seems we're prepared to get it at any cost.

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