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Sunday, 18 December 2011

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Thorns on the side

Kill the call, not yourself

Most people cannot bear to be without their mobile phone for even a few minutes. Mobile phones did not exist in these numbers just 20 years ago. Today, almost everyone has one. In Sri Lanka, 17 million people have mobiles, out of a 21 million population. It has become such an essential accessory, a major lifestyle device.

The mobile phone has revolutionised telecommunications – someone calls you from a riverboat in the Amazon and you can accept the call in the midst of a jungle safari in Yala.

Moreover, the mobile has become a personal assistant – a diary, alarm, camera, music player, barcode scanner, sound recorder, note taker, payment device – all rolled into one. No wonder we are so attached to the little gadgets. There is another, much bigger device that most of us cannot also do without - the car. We spend a lot of time on the road driving or being driven, while having the mobile close to hand. But using the mobile, especially a handheld, while driving could be very dangerous.

In fact, thousands of accidents are reported from every part of the world every month due to the usage of the phone whilst driving.

Many motorists use a workaround solution called the hands-free set, which allows one to take and answer calls without using the hands. But even this could be distracting. A moment’s distraction is all it takes to cause an accident, which could prove to be fatal.

Ban

After a spate of accidents involving mobile usage in the US, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has called for an outright ban on using all forms of mobile phones (handheld, hands-free, audio system integrated) while driving.

At any given daylight moment, some 13.5 million U.S. drivers are on handheld phones, according to a study released last week by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

A similar story emerges from many other countries. If the NTSB has it way, all non-emergency talking, texting or other phone use by US drivers would be made illegal. Many other countries seem to be interested in this proposal. But the question is, is it rather too late in the day?

This question arises because the phone has become another vital car accessory for most people, as the radio/CD, navigation system, map or cupholder. They simply would not want to give it up.

Things are getting more complicated because carmakers themselves are adding in-built hands-free phone functionality into their car dashboards, such as Ford’s Sync and Mercedes’ Command. Some phones also double up as navigation screens.

Thus the thought of being completely cut off from the outside world is too much for most motorists. (Just to sidetrack a bit, the plane used to be the only place where you could not use the cell phone, but many airlines now allow mobile usage thanks to new technology).

Universal

But there is universal agreement that using the phone while driving is even worse than Driving Under the Influence of liquor (DUI). Some even call the mobile phone the “new DUI”.

Another big problem seems to be that while many drivers would not actually use a phone while driving, they like to check or use it while the car is held up at traffic lights or bumper to bumper traffic. This could also cause serious accidents.

Regardless of whether a ban is in effect or not, there are certain steps motorists can take to ensure their safety as well as that of others.

If it is a short journey, say for one hour, just turn the phone off. With the missed call alert facility, you can check the calls that have come in while the phone was turned off.

The other option is to keep the phone turned on, but dial or answer any calls only after parking (if that is possible) safely. And do refrain from texting while driving, unless you can get a passenger to do that for you or there is a speech to text conversion system. If you must use the hands-free, do concentrate on the road ahead, not the call.

There are instances when you could be distracted or disturbed by what the caller says even if you are on a hands-free, impairing your judgement on the road. Remember that you have to keep an eye on the instrument cluster, the side and back mirrors, a navigation screen (if available) from time to time. The phone could literally take you away from the scene. As they say, kill the call, not yourself or others.

Devices

Obviously, the law enforcement authorities must crack down on those who use handheld devices (not just phones - iPads, e-readers and GPS units) while driving. In fact, there are many countries that have banned the consumption of food by drivers on the move. Just the other day, I saw a policeman ignore a motorist who was on the phone even after seeing him, presumably because the traffic was very heavy and stopping that car would have inconvenienced many others.

But this is not something that cannot be ignored at any time. Motorists must simply learn not to use the phone while at the wheel for their own safety. Using the phone is even more dangerous on roads such as the newly opened E01 Kottawa-Pinnaduwa expressway, where the 100 Km/h speed demands constant attention. We cannot stop the forward march of technology. The mobile phone is one of the most useful devices ever invented and it is simply not going to go away. Just 10 years from now, the mobile phone will be so developed that even today’s top of the line models such as the Apple iPhone 4S and the Samsung Galaxy SII will seem like antiquities. But whatever form and shape it takes, we should decide whether we want to have it every second of the day. We did exist without them, though the modern generation cannot remember and do not know a world without the ubiquitous mobile phone. Perhaps we can still manage to turn it off once in a while and especially while driving, then.

  

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