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Fatal distraction on our roads

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3 m 20 sec

I couldn't believe my eyes. A young woman was so deep in conversation on her cellular phone that she stepped off the curb and started crossing a busy intersection in Half-Way Tree. Clinging to the belt around her waist was a little girl who appeared to be around four years old.

The young lady's eyes were only focused on the ground in front of her as she spoke animatedly, waving her free hand around emphatically. She was totally unaware of an approaching car. The little girl tugged violently on the woman's belt until she eventually looked up and scurried out of harm's way.

When I thought of how she almost got that observant little girl and herself killed because she was deeply engrossed in a telephone conversation, I felt a chill go down my spine.

Sitting at the front of the traffic at the intersection of Lindsay Crescent and Dunrobin Avenue, I was waiting on my time to go. The Dunrobin lights went green; a full-sized, left-hand-drive pickup was first in line. The driver appeared to be a 30-something-year-old male. The pickup accelerated quickly and, to my total amazement, the driver had a cellular phone in his hand and he was staring down at it as he texted or dialled.

Driving along Tarrant Drive and approaching the Molynes Road intersection, I was startled by a fast-moving, mid-sized car that swung around the corner and sped right past me. The middle-aged male driver was leaning forward and fully immersed in his cellular telephone conversation. He was staring straight ahead into infinity, not looking at anything in particular and definitely not paying attention to the road. He was obviously operating his vehicle on 'auto pilot', present in body, but absent in mind, transported into a cellular universe and vigorously communicating with someone many miles away.

Danger to self, others

Being distracted while on the road can be fatal for the distracted individual and for other road users, so much so that the term 'fatal distraction' has been coined to describe this growing problem.

The most dangerous thing to do is to send or read texts while driving. Simulated experiments revealed that the distraction of texting slowed the driver's response significantly. Texting drivers drifted in and out of lanes. Their reaction times fell by about 35 per cent and their steering control fell by 91 per cent. Texting while driving is far worse than driving while high on marijuana or alcohol.

Although the mental distraction caused by talking on a cell phone while driving is the same whether the instrument is hand-held or hands-free, the next worse activity to texting is using a hand-held telephone because holding the instrument in the hand is both mentally and physically distracting.

Drunk and cell phone-distracted drivers both have delayed reaction times. Cellphone-distracted drivers do not follow vehicles in front of them as closely as drunks do; they drive less aggressively but do not brake as hard. In other words, being distracted by a cellular telephone while driving is a little different from driving while under the influence, but it impairs the driver at least as much as driving intoxicated with alcohol.

Not just drivers

Bicyclists and motorcyclists are just as guilty of using our roads while being totally distracted by their cell phones. They too get involved in crashes because of being spaced out. Pedestrians endanger themselves and others by transporting their minds miles away while walking in public spaces.

Pedestrians face the additional peril of making themselves potential victims of major crimes when they walk around, head down, texting or staring off and unaware of stalking predators closing in for the kill. Criminals see it as a gift when pedestrians display their phones and tune out, lost in cyberspace. People obviously don't realise that they are incapable of concentrating and remaining fully aware of their surroundings while engaged in cell phone communications.

Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and garthrattray@gmail.com.

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