Opinion: Distracted Driving

Are we so addicted to staying connected that we will risk our lives and others for the sake of a paltry text or tweet?

When you get in behind the wheel do you drop your phone into the side pocket and leave it there? Or is that familiar ping just too hard to resist?

Despite the obvious dangers of attempting while driving to send or read a text, check notifications or make a phone call, and the threat of penalty points and fines for being caught while doing so, every day when I’m out on the road I see someone using a mobile phone. It makes me very angry.

Sometimes it might be a car coming towards me dangerously close to the white line and the driver texting with the phone propped up above the steering wheel. Or it might be someone pulling out of a junction or careering around a roundabout with phone in hand. In any situation it’s dangerous and irresponsible. Combined with speed it’s a deadly mix.

A lot of new cars now come with sophisticated infotainment systems that can be controlled via a combination of voice recognition, steering wheel mounted audio controls or from a touchscreen mounted on the dash. At the very least, most new cars now have Bluetooth connectivity that allows drivers to answer their phone or make calls from the dash without fumbling for the phone itself.

Connectivity is now a bragging right for car manufacturers and they say they are responding to consumer demand. The industry appears to be moving towards the idea of something similar to a fully functioning smartphone integrated into the centre of the dash.

This is slightly alarming because evidence suggests that such in car technology leads to distraction while driving. Behavioural scientists call this cognitive distraction. Our eyes may be on the road but our minds are anywhere but.

This was highlighted in a BBC Panorama programme earlier this week. In a driving simulator at Leeds University, the presenter was coaxed into a conversation by investigators with a series of complex questions and answers while he drove along a stretch of virtual road. His overall speed decreased but he drove closer to the car in front and he missed the turn that he had been instructed to take off the motorway.

Closer to home, last year the IMWA which represents some of Ireland’s motoring journalists held a discussion on the topic of driver distraction. A researcher from Leeds University spoke about how recent studies had shown that once a driver’s primary attention is diverted by another information input like a mobile phone or a piece of in car technology, the risk of an accident increases significantly.

It is always heart-breaking to hear the family of those killed in a car accident speak about their loss and the circumstances surrounding their loved one’s death. While there are many factors that cause accidents on our roads, please don’t let sending a text be one of them.

Caroline Kidd

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