New research released today by the Institute of Advanced Motorists in the UK doesn't tell us much we didn't know before, but it does put it in context. The smartphone is headed for ubiquitous usage, and the wonderful real-time communications and information services it offers are making the roads considerably LESS safe.
Social networking is considerably less safe than texting, drinking to the legal limit and smoking marijuana. And yes, talking on a mobile phone with or without a hands-free is definitely not good for your health, or the health of other road users.
According to the RAC Report on Motoring 2011, eight per cent of U.K. drivers admit to using smartphones for email and social networking while driving, and 24% of 17-24 year old drivers admit the same - three times the average!
If 24% of drivers aged 17-24 were driving around drunk, there would be a massive public outcry. This is much worse, but we blindly accept this clash of technologies which is costing thousands of lives.
Don't expect lot of help from your politicians on this one. The automotive lobby is one of the best organised of any industry, and the alcohol lobby too. Politicians, like it or not, want to get reelected, so they are incentivized to dodge hard decisions that have a purview beyond their immediate term of office. We've already seen plenty of evidence to suggest the Governments of the world simply don't want to hear the truth about drugs and alcohol and the road toll.
There has never been a better example of this than the lame "hands free laws" which have been universally adopted by modern governments. You'll see from the findings that talking on a phone in your hand slows your reaction times by roughly 50%, way more than talking on a hands free telephone at 26% slower.
If, on average, a user's reflexes are 26% slower than when are not talking on a phone, does that sufficiently impair that person's ability to drive enough to ban them from doing so?
Now these findings mostly mirror prior research findings that show that talking on a hands-free mobile phone slows reflexes to be around those of someone who has a blood alcohol content of 0.08%.
A tragedy happens every single on our roads, day in day out, and the carnage grows greater every day and we accept a massive annual road toll as the price we pay for personal mobility and owning a symbol of freedom - the motor car.
One person dies every 27 seconds on a road somewhere on the planet, which equates to a stunning rate of attrition. WW2 was the greatest loss of life in humanity's long history, and 50 million people died in six years - a burn rate of roughly nine million humans a year. Well the road toll is currently 1.3 million a year and heading for 2 million less than a decade from now.
Aggregate statistics are often difficult to relate to, and hence I looked around to try to find a way of putting them in perspective to highlight just how appalling the statistics we accept really are. For instance, ten times more people die on the roads each year than in the entire Iraq War so far - counting both sides and civilians.
Then I put together a list of the most fatal wars in history, divided the number of deaths by the number of years to get the "burn rate" and then compared it with the annual road toll.
Despite mankind's long and extremely brutal history of war, only five wars in history have killed more people per year, and if we included the annual numbers for the road toll each year, only six wars would make the top 20.
The American Government Distracted driving web site describes distracted driving as "a dangerous epidemic on America's roadways", citing more than 3000 American deaths a year specifically related to distracted driving.
Sadly, it's not even Darwinian selection at work, as the person you hit through your distraction is most likely entirely innocent.
The research, conducted jointly by IAM and the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) used the DigiCar driving simulator to examine the effects on the reaction times of young drivers using smartphones to access Facebook. In every test of driving performance, young people who were using facebook while driving were badly affected.
Some of the findings:
When sending and receiving facebook messages, users reaction times slowed by around 38% and they often missed key events.
Subjects who were using Facebook while driving were unable to maintain the car's position in the lane, resulting in a massively increased number of unintentional lane departures.
Subjects who were using Facebook while driving were unable to respond as quickly to the car in front gradually changing speed.
Comparison with previous studies
When comparing these new results to previous studies, the study concludes that the level of impairment on driving while using Facebook is greater than the effects of drinking, cannabis or texting.
- Using a smartphone for social networking slows reaction times by 37.6%
Using a phone for texting slows reaction times by 37.4%
Having a hands-free mobile phone conversation slows reaction times by 26.5%
Driving while under the influence of cannabis slows reaction times by 21%
Driving while under the influence of alcohol (above UK driving limit but below 100mg per 100ml of blood) slows reaction time by between 6% and 15%
Driving while under the influence of alcohol alcohol at the legal limit slows reaction times by 12.5 per cent.
The IAM is not surprisingly calling for government action to highlight the dangers of using smartphones behind the wheel, though in the broader context of distracted driving, it might be best to call for an immediate "no tolerance" for anything that prevents a driver from being at their optimum whilst on public roads. If that single act were legislated and enforced, we would save hundreds of thousands of lives a year globally, a goodly proportion of which are not guilty of anything - they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The chief executive of the IAM, Simon Best said of the research, "This research shows how incredibly dangerous using smartphones while driving is, yet unbelievably it is a relatively common practice. If you're taking your hand off the wheel to use the phone, reading the phone display and thinking about your messages, then you're simply not concentrating on driving. It's antisocial networking and it's more dangerous than drink driving and it must become just as socially unacceptable.
"Young people have grown up with smartphones and using them is part of everyday life. But more work needs to be done by the government and social network providers to show young people that they are risking their lives and the lives of others if they use their smartphones while driving."
TRL senior researcher Nick Reed said: "Our research clearly demonstrates that driver behaviour was significantly and dramatically impaired when a smartphone was being used for social networking. Drivers spent more time looking at their phone than the road ahead when trying to send messages, rendering the driver blind to emerging hazards and the developing traffic situation.
"Even when hazards were detected, the driver's ability to respond was slowed. The combination of observed impairments to driving will cause a substantial increase in the risk of a collision that may affect not only the driver but also their passengers and other road users. Smartphones are incredibly useful and convenient tools when used appropriately and responsibly. Their use for social networking when driving is neither."