A new gadget promises to stop drivers texting while on the road. The technology might be sound, but it won't make a lick of difference. Instead, people need to be shamed into not being stupidly dangerous.
Image: Michael Coghlan
Any death due to drivers texting while they should be paying attention to the road is a tragedy, without a shadow of a doubt.
Not a day goes by when I'm out and about driving where I don't see someone behind the wheel of a car, head down while they're tapping at a screen or head cocked to the side in that curious motion that displays all too clearly that they're taking a call. It's dangerous, stupid behaviour, but it's also quite persistent.
The ABC reports on the work of American inventor Scott Tibbitts, who has a gadget that would prohibit drivers texting while driving by diverting their texts and calls and informing the other messaging party that they're not available right now.
It apparently fits to most cars produced after 1996, which should account for the vast majority of the on-road fleet in 2015. It's a selective device, so you can configure it to only block calls but not music playback, and it's tied to the driver's phone, so passengers with phones would not be affected.
Which makes sense in the Australian context, because the ACMA tends to take a dim view of anything that actively interferes with mobile phone signals.
The idea is that if you opt to have the blocking gadget in your car, your insurance company would cut you a deal on your insurance payments, because your car was "safer" than a driver who refused the same device.
I'm as much of a gadget hound as the next person, and arguably moreso, but I don't have much faith in the efficacy of this particular scheme. It's got nothing to do with the technology at its core, which could well be rock solid, unbreakable stuff.
It strikes me that it'd be rather simple to convince your insurance company you have the gadget installed, hook it up to a cheap secondary phone or SIM, and then have your "main" phone with you as well. You'd get cheaper insurance while being exactly as dangerous as you were before. Somebody will do that kind of thing, because somebody always does.
The issue is that what's needed here isn't a technology solution. What we need is a wider scale change in driver behaviour, because that is what will make a more significant change in terms of drivers calling or texting on the go.
The analogy that comes to mind here is drink driving and the largely generational change that's happened around that. Back when I was a young lad (which was, admittedly, quite some time ago), Australian social expectations around drinking were tied very tightly into a macho culture that suggested that not being able to hold your beer and the wheel of a car actively shrunk the size of your genitals.
Yes, that's a crude way of putting it, but it was undeniably true. "Real" men could sink a case of beer and drive from Sydney to Perth without impacting their driving ability in any way, at least according to the cultural norms of the day.
Yes, I do know that women drink and they drive, too, but in the Australian context there's little doubt that masculine culture was the significant driver of social attitudes at the time. Bear with me.
This kind of thinking was, of course, complete bullshit and dangerous bullshit at that. Thousands died as the result of drunk drivers, and a long, slow campaign of education led to a social change. Nobody really thinks it's safe to drink and drive any more, and you're seen as an idiot if you try to do so, not a "manly" man.
It's that kind of social change that I think is going to be the only thing that'll change the impact of people using phones, whether for texting, tweeting, Facebook updates or plain old hands-on phone calls. I've sat at the lights watching drivers play Angry Birds with one hand on the wheel, and that just straight out should not happen.
That's plain idiotic, and it should be called out as such. Make it so socially unacceptable to text, talk or tweet while driving and the rates should drop in the same way that drunk driving rates did over the last half century. You'll never eliminate them entirely, but any reduction in the number of deaths on the road is a good thing, and social change will shift that way faster than a gadget that people will want to bypass could.
But the only way to minimise the risks is to take responsibility for your own actions, and that's something that happens in your head, not in the hands of a chunk of silicon.