Sam Asano's Let's Invent: Texting is more dangerous on rural roads the interstate
December 29. 2013 6:34PM
A FEW WEEKS ago an email arrived from York High School in York, Maine. The sender was Amber Freeman, a senior who is studying the public safety issue involving texting while driving (TWD) as a part of a school effort called Project Citizen.
Other members of this group were Finn Reynolds and Lizzy Wager, and the teacher in charge is Jeff Barry. The project is a part of Advanced Political Legal Studies.
The project calls for the group to first define the problem, research and collect data, find existing solutions if any, and attempt to develop one if unavailable. Finally their findings will be presented to the Board of Selectmen of the town of York for consideration.
When I read the email, I was a bit taken aback due to the size and scope of the project. The public safety issue caused by texting while driving has become an increasingly serious one in recent years as the number of smartphones proliferated drastically among drivers.
I have an office in Boston, and I commute a few times a week. In the morning on Interstate 95 South, my extremely unscientific study indicates roughly at least one in four drivers (maybe more) are either on the phone talking, or texting. I can tell those drivers are texting because they are often slower than the flow, and you see other drivers trying to pass either on the left or right. Another telltale signs of a texter is that they are often looking down and not looking forward, and they slowly drift away from the middle of the lane only to quickly correct their position when they realize it.
However, superhighways such as I-95 provide a large margin of safety. The lanes are often quite wide (up to 14 feet), and roadways are nearly straight with a gradual curve. This means texting on the highway while driving is a relatively safe thing to do, although it shouldn't be done altogether. I am not condoning it.
But to do TWD on the two-lane country roads with no barrier between the opposing traffic lanes is an entirely different situation. First of all, the lane width is normally 12 feet because these roads were built years ago. The road's radius of curvature is much shorter than the super highways, meaning the driver must be constantly vigilant in steering the car at all times. I assume that a significant percentage of the severe country road accidents results from TWD.
A car going 40 mph on the two-lane highway with 12-foot lanes will drift over and cross the center line, and will reach a collision position in six seconds. The collision with an opposing car of 40 mph would be a combined impact equivalent of 80 mph, and this is a sure cause of a very severe accident easily causing a death or two.
During the period I was studying the safety issues in September, I found that accident statistics are very hard to come by or nonexistent. I inquired at New Hampshire State Police headquarters, and they told me that they do not compile statistics of TWD accidents. In the end, Google was the only source of my humble research, and I was able to get some numbers such as the rate of death by TWD being 5,000 per year, and that 400,000 people get injured yearly because of distracted driving.
Amber Freeman and her group of York High School would have a hard time collecting the solid and accurate statistic data on TWD. By their invitation I visited York High School, and met with the team for 30 minutes. They were looking for me to provide accurate and up-to-date statistics, and I am sure this was a disappointment.
All I could say to them was that this is a new public safety phenomenon, and due to its newness, statistics have not been accurately collected. A policeman I interviewed back in the summer told me that DWI is on the wane because finally people have realized that they could lose their driver's license. Also he told me that DWI drivers are at least trying to drive, while TWD drivers are not even slowing down.
My suggestion to this high school group was that people wouldn't stop texting unless there is a stiff penalty associated with it, such as losing your license.
Nevertheless, I applaud this group's effort. Good luck to you. I end this column on TWD with an email remark from a mother.
"I am a mother of a teenage daughter, who is pressuring me daily to get a cellphone. I am almost at the point of giving in. But I also have a nightmarish thought of getting a police call in the middle of night stating that my daughter was involved in a severe accident. If she was texting with the cellphone I gave her, I wouldn't know how to live after that."
I am very anxious to find out what the Board of Selectmen will do York when Project Citizen presents its findings.
Shintaro "Sam" Asano of New Castle, who speaks and writes English as a second language, was named by MIT in 2011 as one of the 10 most influential inventors of the 20th century who improved our life. He is a businessman and an inventor in the field of electronics and mechanical systems, who is credited as the original inventor of today's portable fax machine. He also developed a data tablet used in the retail point of sale to capture customer signatures when credit cards are used. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.