May 16, 2014

    What can be worse than a drunk driver? A texting motorist


    IN THIS age of mobile digital devices, most people carry around at least one gadget. And they use it wherever they happen to be and whatever they happen to be doing - crossing the road, climbing the stairs, riding a motorcycle, driving a car.

    Concerns over the health impact of phone signals have made headlines, but less publicised are the dangers faced by users who become distracted.

    Studies in the United States suggest that texting while driving is on a par with driving while drunk, and constitutes a significant risk factor in road accidents. Indeed, researchers found that texting slows the reaction time of drivers more than being drunk does.

    Other studies have shown that only 2.5 per cent of people can competently undertake two or more tasks at once. The brain tends to focus only on one task - those who can "multitask" easily are simply better at switching between two activities, according to research published on the website Science Daily.

    A woman was killed recently in the US when she crashed her car into an oncoming truck while taking a "selfie". The photo was found on her mobile phone, which recorded the time it was taken - a split second before the accident.

    Parents and adults distracted by mobile devices could place the children in their charge at risk of injury or worse. Young children need constant supervision, and if the adult is distracted, the risk to the child increases, say experts.

    For pedestrians, talking or texting on the phone can be just as dangerous. A study conducted in hospital emergency rooms in the US uncovered phone users who had been hit by cars, stumbled into a public fountain, wandered into a sinkhole and fallen off a pier. Common injuries included dislocated shoulders, broken arms and legs, and concussion.

    In the US, cases of injuries to pedestrians distracted by mobile devices increased nearly 600 per cent from 2005 to 2010, according to a CNN report last year.

    In Thailand, there has been a slew of incidents, some of them fatal, in which people have been hit by a train or a car while using mobile devices. However, as yet, no official statistics are available.

    With mobile devices so user-friendly, the temptation to use them at inappropriate times and places is strong. But the consequences could be devastating.

    When people casually insulate themselves from their surroundings, they also lose touch with the potential hazards circling around them or lying in their path.

    The remedy is to raise awareness of the recklessness of such behaviour - which is easier said than done - but people might be more careful if they are aware of the real danger facing them and their loved ones.

    Motorists should pull over and stop before they talk on the phone, and pedestrians should avoid using devices when the walkways are busy.

    By itself, the law is not enough to reduce the number of road accidents caused by distracted phone users. It is hard to enforce the ban on phone use while driving. Thai law allows the use of "hands-free" phones on the road, but even these can be distracting.

    A media campaign could help. One 30-second ad in the US carries the message: "If you're texting, you're not driving"; it depicts a driver on the phone at a crossroads being hit side-on by a speeding truck.

    Delivering a similar message here could help people get their heads out of the digital cloud and their eyes back on the road.