As of this writing, there were about 4,600 reported cases of Novel Corona Virus worldwide, and with about 100 deaths attributed to it specifically in China, where it all started. The world is worried, perhaps even more worried than when SARS or MERS wrought havoc years back. Incidentally, all these deadly viral infections started to occur only in the last 20 years.
There must be something really wrong with the world right now. Disease, plagues, deadly weather disturbances, and geological catastrophes are all happening, one after the other. Then, there is the threat of war in the Middle East, and other political upheavals globally. With the natural balance obviously upset, is the world trying to rectify the imbalance?
But there are things just as deadly as natural calamities and killer viruses. Man-made and technology-based, even mobile phones have become modern day killers. In itself, a cellular phone unit is nothing but a tool. But, in the wrong hands, or as the result of misuse or mishandling, it can also lead to serious injury or even death. Just as unpredictable as a virus.
Consider the US statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an agency under the US Department of Transportation. According to the NHTSA, distracted driving cases in the US claimed 3,166 lives in 2017 alone. And by distracted driving, it refers to “any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the stereo, entertainment or navigation system — anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.”
It adds that “texting is the most alarming distraction. Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for five seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed. You cannot drive safely unless the task of driving has your full attention. Any non-driving activity you engage in is a potential distraction and increases your risk of crashing.”
And while we have moved to address this particular issue locally by legislating against mobile phone use while driving or operating motorized vehicles, it appears the law is observed more in breach. I still see a lot of people fiddling with their phones or taking calls (holding their phones) while driving. Motorcycle riders are just as guilty, and are courting greater risk as they take one hand off the handlebar while moving.
One can only wonder about the local statistics for apprehension as well as the data with respect to accidents and deaths related to mobile phone misuse. When the Anti-Distracted Driving Act was new, there were a number of apprehensions reported out. To date, however, such violations no longer seem to rank high among the priorities of traffic enforcers.
As the government continues the pilot testing for motorcycle taxis, with around 60,000 units nationwide, I believe we are now looking at the possibility of even more mobile phone-related accidents. It is for the simple reason that the operation of motorcycle taxis relies heavily on their drivers/riders using cellular units to book passengers and to navigate.
But distracted driving is only one side of the equation. Equally problematic, in my opinion, is the utter disregard for safety of selves and others by the “walking dead” — or zombie-like pedestrians who are glued to or are distracted by their mobile phones as they “navigate” city streets on foot. Add to this the riders of bicycles or scooters, whether powered by electricity or by feet, who are just as distracted by their mounted mobile phones.
This “viral” problem has its variations, which include the use of earphones or ear pods while walking, particularly while crossing streets, or while on public transportation. Worse, I see a lot of motorists — on cars and motorcycles — actually using ear pods while driving. By doing so, they unwittingly lose situational awareness. This, to me, makes mobile phone abuse just as deadly as a killer virus.
I truly believe “distracted walking” to be an emerging urban problem that requires immediate attention. USA Today has reported, for instance, that “pedestrian deaths [in the US] totaled nearly 6,000 in 2017 for the second straight year amid mounting signs that walkers and drivers are dangerously distracted, according to a new study,” adding that “experts suspect that smartphones and marijuana use are key factors in the deadly trend.”
The report added that “texting while walking is especially risky in urban environments. Combine that with drivers who are using their phones or touchscreens while driving, and it’s a recipe for fatalities.” USA Today even quoted a news source as commenting that “people outside cars are dying at levels we haven’t seen in 25 years.”
And while we have a local law against distracted driving, many might find it ridiculous to legislate against mobile phone use by pedestrians. However, the city of Montclair in California, for instance, has actually banned through local ordinance walking across the street while using a phone or headphones. Even Honolulu in Hawaii has a similar law, USA Today reported.
The bottom line, however, is that it will be difficult to legislate a statute to regulate undesirable human behavior. At best, public campaigns can be waged to remind people about the need to prioritize safety over convenience and the dangers of “distracted walking.” However, expect people to be dismissive of such campaigns unless there are rewards and penalties involved.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.