Calling While Driving

One of the problems with humanity is that we all believe that we can do things safely even if others tell us that they are not safe. People who drive fast do so because they are good drivers (so they tell us), people claim that they can drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs when the statistics prove otherwise, and even making a call or texting does not distract some super-drivers.

Governments take some action in some form or other to try and stop people doing these things, but it is selective in nature. Let us take texting while driving as an example. In some countries it is illegal to drive and text at the same time. In the USA it is allowed in some states and prohibited in others. In some states you can talk on the phone, in others not you need a hands-free system.

The law though seems to be selective. Last week research published in the Science journal demonstrates that it is not holding the phone to text or speak that is the problem, it is the conversation itself that causes the distraction.

 

A typical sight today

A typical sight today?

The research showed little or no difference between the rate of accidents when people are using a hands-free system and when they are physically holding the phone. The type of conversation does make a difference though, the more the driver has to concentrate on the subject matter or think before replying, the more chance there is of having a crash.

They also found that any type of interaction, even listening to the radio, effects reaction times and attention paid to the road. The radio is the least invasive because it does not require a response, but I wonder if listening to a news show or a discussion that you have to concentrate to follow causes more distraction, a logical line of thought would seem to imply so. Interestingly enough voice to text is the most dangerous type of technological interaction addressed.

So there are laws against texting, and not holding a phone (I must add not everywhere) but why not make speaking hands-free illegal too? And we should bear in mind that cars are ever more designed for connectivity, and that means distraction, maybe this should also be regulated.

Well that would require a change in business practices and take away personal freedom some might say, but we should remember that driving is not a right, it is a privilege that is governed by rules.

This is a serious piece of research that uses eye monitoring technology to measure distraction and driver awareness. The findings are clear and there is plenty of supporting data from other sources, but how would you feel about not being able to make a call at all though while driving?

At least your boss couldn’t call you while you were on your way home.

Asleep at the Wheel?

Anyone who has ever driven a long distance will know the feeling of “zoning out”. You lose focus on the road, staring blankly in front of you, your reaction time lengthens, and sometimes people even fall asleep.

In the UK it is estimated that about 20% of accidents are caused by people nodding off at the wheel, but a breakthrough at the University of Leicester might help to put an end to this problem.

Researchers have been working on a system that combines high speed eye tracking and EEG technology, with one application being to alert drivers who show signs of drowsiness.

These forms of technology have traditionally been difficult to marry together, EEG use has been around for decades and any epileptic person will have had experience of it. The EEG system involves wearing a kind of cap with electrodes attached that measure neurone activity in the brain. Once a cumbersome affair this can now be carried out using a lightweight headset, a far cry from the rubber cap manually fitted with sensors and cables that I grew up with.

A contemporary EEG Underway

A contemporary EEG

The eye monitoring technology involves infra red cameras measuring how LED light reflects from the user’s eyes, monitoring where the user is looking, how often they blink and other signs of distraction and sleepiness.

The researchers at Leicester have made the breakthrough of devising a way to use these different measurements together, something that has not been possible in the past.

Applications go much further than saving lives however. The developers point to uses for people who cannot use their arms, as they could control machinery using their eyes and thoughts. Even more importantly for some, the technology could be used to control video games, so that a player would no longer have to use a console of any sort but could communicate through measuring where their eyes were looking and the patterns in their brains.

More information is available here.

Radar and Speed Camera Apps

20 years ago I worked above a garage in Manchester. The owner was a young man who liked fast cars, but in Britain the roads are monitored with cameras and speed traps making it easy to lose your license through the points deduction system.

My boy racer friend had a solution however, on the rear view mirror he had a radar detection system. These systems were illegal to use, but not to own, so although visible to a passing police officer there was little they could do about it.

20 years on the technology has improved. Now for 6 euros you can download Radardroid, it sits in your smartphone and informs you when you are getting close to a speed camera or radar. This App sends a visual and sonic signal to warn you, so you can slow down and avoid fines and potentially losing your license.

To think it used to be like this!

Modern technology means less places to hide

There are many systems available. Some like Radardroid are openly helping you to avoid abiding by the law, but others market themselves as driver help tools. They let you know when there is a traffic jam ahead, bad weather or a radar by describing them all as ‘risk zones’. These systems have even been endorsed by some European governments and car manufacturing companies are starting to put the technology directly into their cars.

One problem remains however, in some countries the use of this technology is prohibited. Germany and Switzerland enforce bans on such technology, something that was easy with older systems that could be spotted from outside the car. But what about if it sits within your phone. How can a sovereign state stop people driving on their territory with an App in their phone? Will they stop cars that are factory fitted with the technology from crossing their borders?

I doubt that enforcement will be possible, and this highlights just one of the problems of the management of a single market across different sovereign countries. Technology transcends geographic boundaries, as the internet buying of banned products has proved.

And this leads me to my final question, does this mean that people only abide by the law because they think that they might get into trouble if they don’t? What are the ethical implications of the marketing and endorsing of such products? If this process continues many laws will become obsolete as technology finds ways to avoid being caught.

In Italy you have to pay to use the motorways, so you get a ticket when you enter, that you present when you leave and pay. On some motorways they have introduced what they call a tutor. It is old school technology, the ticket has the time you enter stamped on it. When you leave the time is registered again. If you cover more distance than is possible while remaining within the speed limit you get a fine. A simple A to B calculation that has dramatically cut deaths on my local motorway.

If you are interested in reading more about ethics in technological innovation take a look at my work blog.

Texting While Driving

Communication, communication, communication, but at what cost? In many countries it is illegal to use the phone while driving the car, but many people still do so. Maybe using the phone doesn’t seem such a risky thing to do, but texting?

Figures suggest that many accidents are caused by texting drivers, and many companies are offering possible solutions to the problem. Some Apps block phones that are moving through their GPS systems, but this also blocks passenger phones and cannot tell when the owner is on a bus or train, so have override options. Maybe this override option would be attempted while driving however, and that might be dangerous.

A somewhat typical sight?

Other systems make it so difficult to access the texting facility that it would be impossible to use while driving. Well this is all well and good but a teenager that NEEDS to send a text will find a way, and persistence might not be a good thing at this point. The more difficult it is to enter then the more concentration required, and probably more accidents and deaths caused.

Many of the systems available today also require downloading, so they only work in the phone that carries the App. These systems only work if somebody has downloaded it into a phone (typically their teenage son or daughter’s) and the user cannot work out how to disable it, or doesn’t have another phone or friends for just such emergencies.

More sophisticated systems plug directly into the car and broadcast directly to the driver’s seat, but here hardware is required and other problems of system compatibility are raised.

Although I make light of the situation we are addressing an extremely serious issue. If behaviour does not change than these systems may actually put more people at risk, and that is obviously not to anyone’s advantage.

Many other systems that read out text messages or allow you to dictate them are also available, but I am raising a finger at systems that aim to prohibit rather than adapt behaviour, sold to worried parents that think they might be able to stop their children doing something, and not at those that are aimed at responsible drivers.

So does anybody have experience either as a parent or teenage user that they would like to share with the community?

For a few references and more discussion see this article on NBC News.