Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Profits over Safety

Bicycling for transportation certainly brings many joys and benefits, but there are times on the road when you definitely feel vulnerable.  I don’t so much fear the out-of-control driver as I do the inattentive one, because the latter are much more common.  You know the ones, trying to pretend they’re not texting, but the telltale downward glances into their lap every 5 seconds are a dead giveaway.  I can’t tell you how many times in my daily commute I see drivers talking on their cell phones or texting.  On my commute home last week, one driver almost ran a red light as I was about to cross the intersection and, yup, she was yakking away on a cell phone with both eyes technically on the road.

It’s been well-established that using a hand-held device makes driving more dangerous, but the key thing is, it’s not just because both eyes oren’t on the road, and both hands aren’t on the wheel—it’s because activities such as talking on a phone or texting require cognitive attention to those tasks, and that takes away cognitive attention from the road, reducing reaction time.

Meanwhile, car manufacturers have been loading up their new cars with lots of fancy voice-activated, “hands-free” electronic gadgets in recent years in an attempt to woo buyers.  The assumption is that “hands free” means risk free when it comes to driving, but that assumption has been dealt a serious blow by a new study commissioned by AAA (not exactly an “anti-car” group, to say the least).  The study found that hands-free, voice activated devices, when used for making phone calls or voice texting, or accessing email or social media resulted in “significant impairments to driving that stem from the diversion of attention from the task of operating a motor vehicle.”  The study concluded that the use of these devices poses an “extensive” safety risk.  This occurs because the increased mental workload and cognitive distraction caused by the use of these devices “can lead to a type of tunnel vision or inattention blindness where motorists don’t see potential hazards right in front of them.”

Not surprisingly, auto manufacturers dismissed the study, claiming their devices are “safe” because they “keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road.”  Only it’s not true.  This issue isn’t your hands and eyes, it’s your brain.  Radios do little to distract drivers, the study found, but active communication requires a level of cognitive attention that impairs driving.  With certain hands-free tasks, your brain isn’t on the road, even if your eyes are.

If you need to check email or take a call, pull over and park.  You’re operating a piece of heavy equipment on the public roads, and distracted driving is impaired driving, even if both hands are on the wheel.  Heavier fines for using cell phones and other voice-activated devices should be imposed.  We shouldn’t wait for the auto industry to agree.  As Ralph Nader showed America over 40 years ago, the industry will gladly put profits ahead of safety, even when the evidence is overwhelming.

That’s one reason I like things like green bike lanes, such as those on Spring Street in downtown L.A.  The green paint makes the bike lane as visible as possible to catch the attention of distracted drivers.  I’ve ridden them a number of times and they provide more safety for bicyclists because of their greater visibility.

Once again, an industry’s profits are threatening to trump public safety.  FilmL.A., the film industry’s lobby group, is on a crusade to remove the green paint from Spring Street’s bike lane.  Location managers initially claimed that it would make Spring Street an unsuitable stand-in for other cities.  Then, when it was pointed out that cities as diverse as Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia Minneapolis, Washington DC, and New York (to name a few) also have green bike lanes, the industry switched its argument and said they couldn’t remove the green paint in post-production.  When that was proven false, then they claimed it was the green reflection that they couldn’t remove.  Now they claim they can remove the green tint, but it raises the costs of production.  Ah, well money trumps safety for one of the most profitable industries on the globe, see.  I hope the LA City Council has the courage to stand up to Film L.A. and keep Spring Street green.

Safety over profits.  Sounds crazy, I know.  Maybe we should try it.

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2 thoughts on “Profits over Safety

  1. IMHO, the only salvation of pedestrians and bicyclists will be the widespread adoption of vehicle detection advancements that sense, stop and avoid other road users. This is an area safety advocates should probably start making a concerted effort to support, as the deterrence of higher fines and more enforcement is likely to be limited.

    • You raise a good point, but until such technologies are widespread and affordable, there will still be millions of cars out on the roads without them. In the meantime, I think good old fashioned law enforcement and education can be a deterrent.

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