Distracted driving is a bigger problem than ever, and that’s terrifying for cyclists

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On the morning on December 30, 2001, Silvia Nicole Ciach picked up her mobile phone while driving near the Victorian city of Geelong. As she typed the opening letters of a text message to her friend, her car veered into the adjacent bike lane and ran into the back of 36-year-old rider Anthony John Marsh.

Marsh bounced into the car’s windscreen and onto the roof, before landing on the side of the road. He died almost instantly, his training ride cut tragically short.

In 2003, Ciach had her license cancelled for two years but avoided jail time: a two-year prison sentence was suspended for three years.

Nearly 15 years after that case was closed, distracted driving is a greater problem than ever before. As cyclists we are both incredibly vulnerable to distracted driving and the most able to see it in action. Too often we’ll see a driver with their head down, glued to their phone at the traffic lights, or worse, while the car is in motion. And Anthony John Marsh certainly isn’t the only cyclist in recent years to have fallen victim to a distracted driver.

In November 2014, retired professor Paola Ferroni was riding to a gym in West Perth when she was hit and killed by a texting driver. Prosecutors said the driver had been preoccupied by her phone for almost the entirety of her 50-minute journey, sending and receiving 10 text messages in the minutes before the crash. The last of the messages was received just 16 seconds before triple-zero operators received their first call about the crash.

This is just a snapshot of the problem; a problem that, scarily, only seems to be getting worse.

A recent report from the Australian Government’s Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) predicts that the Australian road toll is going to increase 20% by 2030, “as fatalities linked to traffic growth and increased mobile phone use outnumber fatality reductions from road safety measures (if unchanged)”.

It’s hardly surprising. Talking on a mobile phone while driving was dangerous enough in the early days of the technology but the smartphone boom has meant that, today, phones are used for much more than making calls. Most functions of the modern phone – text messaging, social media and so on — require the user to be looking at their phone. And given “problematic mobile phone use is prevalent across all ages and both genders”, it’s also unsurprising that many people choose to operate their devices while behind the wheel.

As cyclists, it’s hard not to be concerned. But how much of an issue is distracted driving really? Are there viable technological solutions that can be employed to stop drivers from doing the wrong thing? And where might things go from here?

The size of the issue

Handheld use of a mobile phone is illegal Australia-wide and indeed in most jurisdictions around the world. And yet, the number of drivers using their phones in this way, despite knowing it’s illegal and dangerous, is disturbingly high.

Dr Kristie Young is a road safety researcher at the Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC) and the author of several studies related to distracted driving. Citing MUARC research, Dr Young told CyclingTips that, scarily, it’s the majority of drivers that use their phones while driving, not the minority.

“It’s sitting at around 60% overall of drivers who will use their phones,” Dr Young said. “Obviously different age groups have different levels of use. So it’s really sitting up around about 70% of the younger drivers who are using their phones.

“That’s based on self-reports and that data is a few years old now but I suspect it’s around that level or perhaps even more.”

Australian data on the impacts of distracted driving is limited, but data from elsewhere show a not-insignificant effect. For instance, U.S. data show that texting while driving “creates a crash risk 23 times higher than driving while not distracted”. Another troubling statistic: according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, at any given moment in the United States, about 660,000 people are using mobile phones behind the wheel — 2.2% of all drivers. This figure has almost quadrupled over the past decade.

Worse still: “The figures coming out of the U.S. tell us that mobile phones account for around 14% of all distraction-related fatal crashes,” Dr Young said. “It doesn’t sound like much but if you think about the number of different distractions that drivers can engage in it is quite significant that mobile phones are contributing to that much road trauma.”

Bicycle Network

When the BITRE report was made public in May, it prompted barely anything in the way of media interest. That was until Victorian cycling advocacy group Bicycle Network used the report to call for the introduction of mandatory phone blocking technology.

“It was interesting because the report went out without much fanfare — there certainly wasn’t a lot of outcry about it with people saying ‘this isn’t good enough, we’re supposed to be going towards zero, we’re supposed to be driving the road toll down and the last couple of years its downward trend has stopped’,” Bicycle Network CEO Craig Richards told CyclingTips. “For everyone to just accept it’s going to go up seemed pretty meek and mild to us. That’s why we thought it’s time to do something about it.”

For Richards, mandatory phone blocking technology in all cars will take temptation away from drivers, rather than relying on law enforcement to stem the tide of illegal phone use.

“Leaving it up to the police to enforce it is a big ask because it’s so prevalent — it’s time to do something more,” Richards said. “So that’s why we’re saying it should be a situation where it’s taken out of the driver’s hands. It’s not just the driver’s choice whether they do it or not. It should be technology.”

The technology

So what does that technology look like exactly? For Craig Richards, “[It] would be preferable if the technology engaged automatically rather than leaving it up to the driver to engage it.” In its crudest form, this technology could simply involve jamming all mobile phone signals within a moving vehicle. Portable signal jammers are both inexpensive and effective but they’re also illegal in Australia, the UK, the U.S., and in many other countries.

Even if jammers were legal, using such a device wouldn’t just stop the driver from using their mobile phone; it would also stop passengers from doing so, likewise others in the immediate vicinity (including pedestrians). Crucially, it would also stop occupants of the car (driver or passenger) from making an emergency call, should that be necessary.
Researchers in India, however, have taken strides towards a more targeted solution.

A prototype system developed earlier this decade at the AVS Engineering College proved able to detect mobile phone use happening in the driver’s seat and jam the signal to and from that phone only (and, incidentally, alert the police to this illegal phone use). But while the technology showed great promise at the time, it doesn’t appear to have made the difficult leap from prototype to commercially viable solution.

Other solutions, meanwhile, have made it to the consumer market by way of the smartphone ecosystem. Newer versions of Apple’s iPhone (running iOS 11) can be set up to go into Do Not Disturb mode when they detect you might be driving. There is an array of similar apps on both the iOS App Store and on Google Play — including Road Mode for Android (see below), made by the Victorian roads authority, VicRoads — which do a similar job to Apple’s Do Not Disturb function, shutting off all distracting network functions.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDw9bbB9TUc

A video explanation of VicRoads’ Road Mode app.

Then there are the software-plus-hardware solutions, such as those sold by Groove or TextStopper. In each case, the driver’s phone is paired with a small device that sits inside the car and blocks all traffic with the phone’s mobile carrier. People that text you are sent an auto-reply explaining that you are driving, while all phone notifications you would normally receive are instead banked and then delivered when you stop driving.

All of these solutions will do the job of stopping a driver from being distracted by their phone, but all are linked by a common problem: the need for driver buy-in. As Dr Young explains, it seems unlikely that drivers who lack the self-control necessary to leave their phone alone will feel the need to invest in and set up a blocking app.

“I know that there’s been a few locking apps that are on the market currently and they’re reliant on drivers actually putting those apps on,” Dr Young said. “They don’t automatically come on when the vehicle’s started or anything like that. So you are reliant on drivers actually turning those apps on.

“I’m not aware of any research that’s looked at how many drivers are actually using those and how effective they are. So I think there’s definitely a need for more work there.”

Nissan Signal Shield is equally promising in theory, but similarly flawed in practice. This compartment, built into the centre console of the Nissan Juke as part of a trial, is essentially a Faraday Cage which blocks all electromagnetic fields. That means no mobile signal reaching the phone, so no distracting notifications. But just like the numerous apps on the market, the Signal Shield has the problematic requirement of driver buy-in.


A video demonstration of the Nissan Juke’s Signal Shield.

Caught on camera

Speak to those in the know and it becomes clear that mandatory phone blocking technology isn’t likely to be introduced any time soon. VicRoads, for example, doesn’t believe the technology is advanced or well-researched enough.

“VicRoads is aware of technology which blocks mobile phone signals while driving,” said Acting Director of Road User and Vehicle Access, James Soo. “However, as this technology is still under development, it is too early to consider the possible role this may play in changing driver behaviour.”

But there is a technological solution that some authorities are starting to get behind: automatically detecting illegal phone use through a roadside camera-plus-software setup.

Australian company One Task has made headlines in recent years for its work in this space. Its system works by taking footage of drivers from above (from freeway overpasses, for example), before running that footage through computer software. The software detects phones in use, with humans then confirming the results.

Systems such as these are in use elsewhere around the world — including in Saudi Arabia — and several states around Australia have recently mooted the possibility of introducing such technology. Victoria ran a test of the system last year which captured 270 drivers using their phones in a five-hour period in one lane of Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway, and more than a 1,000 drivers in three lanes over nine hours on CityLink. New South Wales, however, is the first state to take serious action, having recently started a trial of the system that’s being backed by new legislation.

As Dr Young notes, Victorian authorities are keeping a close eye on the NSW trial.

“Just from talking to VicPol [Victoria Police] and VicRoads briefly at conferences and meetings and things, I know that they’re definitely interested in looking at these systems,” she said. “I guess they need a bit of an evidence base to know whether there is going to be a benefit.”


A video about One Task from Channel Nine News in Melbourne.

At face value, automated camera technology would seem to be a good solution to the growing problem of distracted driving.

“I think that’s likely to have quite an impact because … a big reason for why drivers continue to use their phone is that they just don’t think they’re going to get caught,” she said. “They know the dangers that are involved in it, but they think the likelihood of them getting caught is just really slim, so they take the chance.

“I think if there’s more automated enforcement out there and people start to realise that the chances of being caught is increased, I think that will have an effect.”

Bicycle Network, meanwhile, will continue to push for mandatory phone blocking technology. CEO Craig Richards said the organisation will work behind the scenes with VicRoads and the Victorian government to build momentum in this space. Because ultimately, in Richards’ view, no group is more at risk to distracted driving than cyclists.

“Bike riders see a lot of people on their phone because you can see into the vehicle more easily when you’re on your bike than you can if you’re sitting in a car or a pedestrian,” he said. “The things that we try to advocate for, while they obviously potentially benefit bike riders they benefit others as well. They benefit people when they’re in a car, they benefit people when they’re on foot.

“But overall we do have a big interest in making sure that no one on the road gets hurt or killed, and particularly bike riders.”

It’s too late for Anthony John Marsh and the many other riders who have been killed by distracted drivers. But hopefully, as enforcement becomes stronger and more prevalent, the trend towards illegal phone will turn in the opposite direction and other road users can be spared the same tragic fate.

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