How important can this phone call have been?  Image courtesy: www.allindiaroundup.com, 20th July, 2016

‘Look!’ said the little boy, showing off to his friend, ‘No hands!’, as he took his hands off the handlebars of his new cycle, continuing to pedal at a terrific pace. ‘Look!’ he said again, as his cycle went down a ramp, still with his hands in the air, ‘No eyes!’ He closed his eyes as added evidence of his cycling prowess. The friend soon heard a crash and saw his cyclist friend in a heap at the side of the road. ‘Look!’ said the friend, this time, ‘No teeth!’. This is a joke I remember hearing as a child some 30 years ago.

Who would have thought that 30 years later, the ‘No hands-No eyes-No teeth’ joke would have turned into reality. Sadly, this is no longer about the simple times of several decades ago when we meandered aimlessly around the quiet residential streets of Chennai. The cycles have been replaced by motorised vehicles several tonnes in weight, the gentle pace of pedal power by petrol induced acceleration, the quiet streets of Chennai by the honking madness of our bedraggled roads and the children – well, the real children of yesteryears have been replaced by adults, kept artificially immature by a host of ploys played by the digital world. And smartphones are increasingly suspect as prime culprits.

A car driver who texts while behind the wheel can cover the whole length of a football field with his eyes off the road and his hands engaged otherwise. There is growing evidence to say that a driver on his mobile phone is 4 times more likely to be involved in a crash. As mobile phones become cheaper and more accessible,  the use of the phone more ubiquitous and phones themselves begin to morph into cameras, TV screens and computers all rolled in one, it is becoming increasing difficult to ignore the effect of these little devices on our on-road behaviour.

Distracted driving

Distracted driving is the term used to refer to this multitasking behaviour, which reduces the driver’s capacity to focus on the road, forcing him instead to attend to activities that are secondary to his role as a driver. Common distractions do not merely include the phone. Handling the stereo system while continuing to drive, eating/drinking, applying make- up, even having a conversation with those in the car, can siphon off the driver’s attention. In one instance in the UK, a truck driver was found to be steering his 40 tonne lorry down the motorway with his knees, eating a bowl of spaghetti with his now free hands! Despite these antics displayed by the occasional driver, its the phone that holds a special place amongst possible distractions, just because of the sway that this instrument continues to build and hold over our lives.

Digital distractions

According to TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India), India now has 1.12 billion phone subscribers. In a nation of 1.3 billion people, it is clear that there are not many Indian adults out there without a phone. With the drive for Digital India, with the roll out of Jio and similar cheap mobile networks, with phones now priced cheaper than ever before, smartphones have now firmly planted themselves within terra-must-have. It is no surprise then that in a recent survey by SaveLife Foundation,  47% of those surveyed  reported that they would answer a ringing phone whilst driving. Texting when at the wheel has been shown by studies to be particularly risky. Worryingly, the same survey indicated that nearly 94% of truck drivers surveyed reported that they would text or WhatsApp if there was no police officer in sight. 11% of two wheeler riders acknowledged that they would use social media while driving.

So what are the risks?

It appears that most drivers and passengers are intuitively aware of the risks of distracted driving as in the above survey, 94% of respondents agreed that phones distracted the driver and that this was dangerous and 96% agreed to feeling unsafe if driven by a driver on a phone.

The first case in point is to acknowledge that driving needs eyes on the road, hands on the wheel and ears on alert. Equally importantly, cognitive resources need to be devoted entirely to the object of driving. Research is making it increasingly clear that hands free devices do not really reduce the risks of distracted driving, emphasising that the real burden of a phone conversation is the cognitive one.

Any risks posed by phones are much higher in the case of young people (under 25 years), who are not only more prone to being involved in a crash anyway (currently constituting 18% to 30% of all road fatalities) but also more likely to engage in high risk behaviours, therefore more likely to use phones behind the wheel, besides being relatively inexperienced on the road.

Can legislation help?

Currently, amendment 183 A introduced in 2012 to the Motor Vehicles Act prohibits the use of handheld devices, with a fine of Rs 500. The Motor Vehicles Amendment Bill (2017), passed by the Lok Sabha in April 2017, hikes penalties for offences to rupees five thousand with imprisonment of up to a year.

However, the reality faced by even technologically advanced countries is the enforcement of such laws. How India will cross that bridge when it comes to it, remains to be seen.

What can you do?

Are you calling someone who might be driving? Before you launch into a conversation, check that the person is not driving. Insist that they park up somewhere safe before continuing the call.

Do you own a business? 41% of people use phones while driving, for work related purposes. Can you enforce, just amongst your employees, a no-phone- while- driving ban?

Do you ride public transport (bus, taxi or autorickshaw)? Challenge the driver if he is on the phone. Enforcement by citizens can be just as effective as that by the police.

That phone call is not worth dying for. Never mind how pressing the matter appears or how persistently the phone rings, stop your vehicle at a safe place, before you answer your phone. Its that simple, really.