OPINION: Distracted driving - the insanity of public roads
The distracted driving epidemic seems to know no bounds. With global road deaths set to exceed 1.5 million human beings in 2011, almost every country in the world continues to accept the mayhem on the roads as simply the cost of doing business. Distracted driving is the hot topic of the moment with research suggesting 5,800 U.S. traffic deaths last year were tied to motorists who failed to keep their eyes on the road.
Another study claims American drivers are distracted between one-quarter and one-half of the time they spend on the road, two-thirds of drivers use a cell phone while driving, one-third used a cell phone routinely and observational studies suggest between 7% and 10% of all drivers are using a cell phone at any given time. If you think that's bad, you should see what happens in Asia.
How accountable should road users be?
Should public roads be a place where safety is sacrosanct? If you kill someone through your negligence on public roads, should you be charged with manslaughter? If your negligence or lack of reasonable care causes another life to be lived in pain, or someone's quality of life to be significantly reduced, for decades, should you be forced to compensate that person equitably? If you take another life through your chosen actions, albeit indirectly, how accountable should you be?
Much of my opinion on such matters early in life was based on the fact I rode a motorcycle, and that I was of little danger to anyone else, and I was angry about the cynical revenue raising activities of governments more intent on balancing the books (by fining people), than saving lives.
In more recent times, I have been swinging around to another viewpoint - that public roads should be a place where public safety is paramount, and anyone endangering public safety should be simply removed from the roads. Drink driving, excessive speed, dangerous driving etc should be given one extremely costly chance and after that, you forfeit your right to use them for a significant period of time.
Now, this is entirely personal opinion, and it is as much a personal essay on life on public roads as it is a photographic essay on life on roads in developing Asian countries.
A few years ago, I read new research from the University of Utah which suggested that driving while using a cell phone gave one roughly the same reactions as a person of 0.08 blood alcohol content - for quite different reasons, but the end result was the same. Remarkably, the study concluded that whether the driver was speaking on a hands-free or holding the phone, the end result was EXACTLY the same. The problem is not the holding of the phone in the car, but the driver's mind being elsewhere.
As someone who had ridden a motorcycle as my preferred form of transport for much of the preceding half century, and with a background based in mathematics, the research resulted in a personal epiphany.
To put it in perspective, if 10% of the drivers on the road were driving with 0.08 blood alcohol content, there would be a massive outcry at the mayhem being caused. Logically, such behavior would be stopped immediately in any developed country.
Not only hasn't it been stopped, the people we have elected to govern us have now legislated almost unanimously, in almost all developed countries, to ensure that hands-free devices are okay for use on public roads, and handheld cell phones whilst driving are not.
It doesn't make sense, and after giving it some thought, it resulted in my motorcycle riding being curtailed almost entirely. A dented fender on a car is roughly the equivalent of a broken leg or much worse for a motorcyclist, and I decided to err on the side of caution given the growing threat of always-connected voice and video and text-messaging on the road.
Distracted driving isn't new. We've always had passengers to talk to, kids to control, hair to coiff in the rear vision mirror, documents to read and meetings to "prepare for" while we were stuck in traffic. As technology has advanced rapidly, the number of compelling distractions has grown. At first it was the car radio, better radio stations to find, and then the compact cassette player (with linear access which needed constant shuttling to find what you were looking for), the CD player, digital radio and now texting, anmd the internet to keep our minds exactly where they shouldn't be.
There's an epidemic sweeping the roads of the world called distracted driving, and if you spend a lot of time on the roads, sooner or later it will impact you, quite literally.
So I decided to reduce the risk posed to me by other road users by reducing my time in traffic on a motorcycle. Motorcyclists, pushbike riders and pedestrians are the most vulnerable of road users - they are disproportionately representative in traffic deaths by comparison with car drivers, and similarly, they are way overrepresented in the roughly 75 million road accidents which occur each year across the planet. I did not wish to become a statistic.
Then I started traveling to less developed countries a lot more, and remarkably, I began riding again - in an environment where the dangers are far greater. I now travel with a $1000 helmet in my baggage, because I know that the only way to travel in most Asian countries is by motorcycle. In Ho Chi Minh city, for instance, a lengthy journey by motorcycle will take less than half the time taken by a car.
In many countries, people come up to me regularly to ask about the helmet, and how much it costs. I feel embarrassed to tell them its cost because to them, my helmet represents several months of the family income. I started travelling with the helmet in Vietnam, after finding that 34 people a day die on Vietnamese roads, most of them in my favourite Vietnamese city, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).
As a motorcyclist in Europe, America and Australia, I have witnessed plenty of ridiculously stupid behavior by educated, relatively-wealthy car drivers.
As a motorcyclist (and driver and passenger) in Asian countries such as China, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, I have seen the same behavior a lot more clearly. In such countries, the motorcycle is more often than not, the first motorized transport the family has ever owned. It is the equivalent of the family car. Car drivers in developed countries still talk without a hands-free, or text, but when everyone rides a motorcycle, texting and talking is there for everyone to see. It is undisguisedly common behavior.
The following photo gallery is a glimpse of life on the roads in a different country (90%+ of Gizmag readers are in developed countries), where three, four and five people on a motorcycle are commonplace (I once saw SEVEN), where helmets are optional (or cost $10 or less and have dubious impact protection qualities), and where the police forces are too busy with other matters to enforce road rules. In most asian countries, the police only book people who clearly have money - the populace at large is not worth the effort.
This article will continue to be expanded as I add photos and additional thoughts.
Finally, I'm not proposing any answers. The more I travel, the more I realise that human nature is its own enemy and that the combination of the motor vehicle and natural selection are improving the gene pool all over the world, just faster in some countries than others.
Stay tuned, and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.