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Smartphones not so smart on the road


LATELY, I’ve been made more and more aware of a phenomenon that is increasing on a daily basis; that is, texting while driving. It seems so arbitrary but when you look around yourself in traffic, you’ll notice how many drivers are using their cell phones.

I decided to try and monitor this so I stood on the side of the road at a busy intersection in Sandton to observe commuters. Of the 73 vehicles I encountered at the three traffic lights I visited, I noted 47 people either staring down at their phone or with the phone at their ear.

If you think about it, that moment where you dip your head to look down at your cell phone, you are essentially blind. Arrive Alive has revealed studies suggesting that texting while driving is more dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Texting and driving falls under the ‘distracted driving’ category which encompasses a wide variety of driving actions. Other actions that fall under this category include: eating or drinking, adjusting the radio, a talkative passenger, roadside distractions, your navigation system or even a map, or paper, with directions on it for the more old school drivers. The statistics for South Africa are not as well known as in other parts of the world however, the use of figures from the USA and the UK, I feel, is an accurate representation.

According to the US Department of Transportation, there were at least 515 000 injuries and 5 870 fatalities in the US in 2008 as a result of distracted driving. Research has also shown that in the US, more than 750 000 vehicles were driven by someone using a cell phone.

Arrive Alive also goes on to reveal that simulated tests where the subject is talking on the phone, no matter if it’s at their ear, with a hands-free kit or via Bluetooth, increases the risk of an accident. Researchers studying brain imaging documented that listening alone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent.

The AA has also been involved in a campaign to stop texting and driving. The research they use comes from the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) who have also simulated a texting and driving situation which has shown a trend for impaired driving performance when using a hand-held phone in comparison to other conditions.

The research also revealed that texting while driving also affected reaction-time more than driving while over the legal limit for alcohol. It was measured that the kind of conversation the driver was engaging in, had a bearing on their driving performance.

"We have seen several high profile court cases overseas where drivers have been jailed for dangerous driving as a result of phoning or texting, and hope that this attitude of no tolerance for the same offence will be adopted in South Africa," said Gary Ronald, Head of Public Affairs at the AA. "While it would be unrealistic to ban phone use in the car, we need to ensure that South Africans are aware of the dangers and repercussions of reckless phoning while driving," he concluded.

A 2011 survey by CIB Insurance revealed that an astonishing 70 percent of people surveyed in SA admitted to texting while driving. The current rate of smartphone and social media expansion is sure to make this figure grow without the promotion of awareness for just how dangerous this type of habit can be.

Research conducted last year  by Ipsos OTX on 14 160 drivers from 324 countries published in found that South Africans are almost twice as likely to use their phones while driving than drivers in other countries. Four in ten or 41 percent of South Africans surveyed admitted to breaking the law by using their mobile while driving, ranking second, behind only Saudi Arabia who were at 43 percent.

So how do we help prevent this potentially dangerous behaviour? There are around 336 civilians per police officer here in SA so to expect our police service to fine each person on their phone is a bit extreme. However, should the punishment for such behaviour be intensified, then perhaps it would only take a few people being made examples of to lead to a decrease in occurrences.

There have been measures taken against this epidemic in Cape Town already, with the Traffic By-law of 2011, which works in conjunction with the National Road Traffic Act and has been implemented with the aim of reducing the number of road fatalities as a result of cell phone usage. 

The AA has summed up this by-law as follows: This by-law and regulation prohibits the use of cell phones while driving. This includes texting and driving. The by-law however, goes on further to give the authorised officer the power to confiscate and impound a driver’s cell phone when they are caught contravening this regulation/by-law. 

What are your experiences when it comes to texting and driving and what suggestions could you offer which might help to curb this behaviour?

Article written by Sean Nurse
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