Seatbelts and Cellphones: Re-wiring Driving Practices

On the mobile while mobile front, Abdul Shabeer of the Anna University of Technology in Tamilnadu, India has published a paper (“Technology to prevent mobile phone accidents” in Int. J. Enterprise Network Management, 2012, 5, 144-155) on in-car cell blocking tech:

The team [Abdul Shabeer of the Anna University of Technology in Tamilnadu, India, et al.] has now devised a system that can determine whether a driver is using a cell phone while the vehicle is in motion and “jam” or block the phone signals accordingly using a low-range mobile jammer that ensures the vehicles passengers might use their phones unhindered. The system has the potential to report “infringements” depending on local laws and might also report vehicle registration number to the traffic police under such laws. The team suggests that an alternative approach might be to alert others in the vehicle that the driver is attempting to use the phone. They suggest that not only would such a system reduce road traffic deaths, but it would have the positive side effect of improving how the average goods vehicles are driven overall.

So, stop, narc, or warn. Interesting move to suggest that the system could be used in different ways.

This whole “talking and texting while driving” thing is interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, while there is clear evidence that both texting and talking on phones while driving increases traffic accidents—even as compared to talking to people in the same car—people frequently defend the practice citing the principle of freedom.  Frankly, this justification is uncompelling.  Your freedom ends where the right to reasonable presumption of safety of other people on the road begins. You may feel like an individual encased in your car, but you are really one small part of a huge community that is always poised on the edge of disaster.

The whole thing reminds me of the advent of mandatory seatbelt laws in the 1980’s in the US.  At that point, it was clear that in crashes, people who didn’t wear seat belts were much more likely to die and be more severely injured than those wearing seat belts.  People argued against the legislation on the grounds of individual liberty, but the laws were passed in 49 of the 50 states.

These days, few people drive without seat belts.  In 25 years, we’ve seen what amounts to a cultural shift, a transformation in everyday practice. In part, I think people got used to the new practice.  While unfamiliar at first, after a while it didn’t seem that strange anymore. Some people were forced to buckle up by cars with those weird systems for automatically attaching a shoulder belt when you closed the door.  Parents also taught their children, so those of us who started driving from the early 80s never driving without belts. Whenever I don’t put on my belt, it feels like something is wrong. Peter Berger’s bit about social construction of reality (externalization—objectification—internalization) was proven correct. Societal attitudes were changed through transformation of practices.

Shabeer’s system (and others like it) may be part of the key to moving us beyond today’s wishful thinking about the safety of mobile while mobile by forcing a new set of safer practices.

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Update: More Coverage at Smithsonian.com that notes some of the civil liberties implications, especially when the system for notification of police is enabled. So, some kinks to work out (for instance, I’d assume that 911 calls would go through), but still worth pursuing.

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