Walk, Text, Crash: the Orwellian future

Park.ukThe man coming toward me in the park, maybe 500 yards up the path, was walking a large, mixed-breed black-and-white dog. He (the man, that is) was bearded and graying, nattily dressed in black pants, a red plaid sports shirt and gray sweater.

Just ahead of me, walking in the same direction as I, was a younger man dressed in sweat pants and jacket and holding the end of a leash attached to a tan Labrador retriever.

Both men were totally absorbed in texting.

It was a slow-motion episode exquisitely orchestrated for a YouTube video, if only I had been quick enough with my cellphone; as it was, I could only watch, fascinated and wordless. They collided at full speed, one cellphone clattering onto the asphalt and one leash dropped. But there were no apparent casualties. The dogs, at least, had sense enough to have steered themselves safely onto the grass where they were sniffing each other with unconcerned abandon. I smiled politely and kept going.

The episode underlined the hazards of texting while walking, which can surely be as dangerous as texting while doing almost anything else. Almost: there are no available statistics on the adverse effects of texting while having sex, which seems popular in some demographics.

Not long ago, New York Times columnist Nick Bilton wrote a piece in which he shared a New Year’s resolution to quit texting while walking.

“The realization that I may have a problem (along with a lot of other people),” Bilton wrote, “hit me smack in the face, literally, a few weeks ago when I was strolling through Kennedy International Airport, avoiding obstacles with my peripheral vision as I clambered out a text message. Without any warning (as I couldn’t actually see), I was involved in a head-on collision with another man who was also texting while walking.”

Most walking-zombie texters do survive, as Bilton did, with only bruised egos or minimal damage, but that’s not always the case. An Ohio State University study links “distracted walking” to the dramatic increase in pedestrian injuries and deaths.

Equally dismal, for the future of the planet, is how texting while walking may alter human interaction, whether texters live or die with their devices. One report, an interview with Dietrich Jehle, professor of emergency medicine at the University of Buffalo, suggests an Orwellian solution to texting/walking hazards: a cellphone app that shows the landscape ahead, so that texters can text interminably, and see where they’re going without ever looking up.

Is there life beyond a 2 ½ x 5 inch screen?

Cellphones, antennas, towers… radiation happens

cellphone antenna pole in Wimsheim, Germany
Image via Wikipedia

Radiation from the A-bomb test witnessed by my then-Marine husband in the early 1950s was registered on a small badge worn around his neck. They double-timed from foxholes toward the site of the blast. As far as we and the U.S. government know, all of those guys went on to lead long and healthy lives — and we went on to deadlier bombs anyway. We do now know a little more about those sorts of radiation damage.

We don’t know much about the tiny emissions from cellphones, iPhones, cellular antennas, texters, Skypers, whatever. The suggestion that any of those cyber-issues could possibly cause harm draws scoffs and derision and denials, but the truth is we simply don’t know. Some folks would still like to find out; maybe even find out before harm is done rather than after. An ongoing mini-battle in San Francisco is typical of such citizen struggles everywhere:

The increasing popularity of smart phones is pitting companies looking to expand their coverage against city residents concerned about the dangers presented by a growing number of cellular antennas.

Nearly every week, the city Planning Commission hears from a company looking to add to the thousands of cellular antennas already in the city. And, like clockwork, local residents turn out to fight the plans.

“These towers should be away from residences, away from schools and away from other vulnerable populations,” said Doug Loranger, who, as founder of the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union, has been fighting the cellular companies for a decade.

That’s not easy to do in a city as densely packed as San Francisco, where hills and tall buildings have long made radio transmission a challenge.

The crowds that jammed local stores looking to buy the new Apple iPhones last month demonstrate another part of the problem. San Francisco has a reputation as one of the most tech-savvy cities in the country, and the people buying the various new smart phones want fast and easy access to the Internet on their handheld devices, which means more demand for service.

This demand for service drives the rush to install more antennas and modify the existing ones. As long as they meet emission standards set in 1996, they are deemed fine, and cannot be challenged on the basis of health, a frustrating reality for potential challengers. Because that actually is the issue: whether — or at what point — emissions can indeed become damaging to one’s health. And though radiofrequency radiation emitted by the antennas has not been proven to have any damaging effects, activist Beverly Choe, whose children attend school near one such installation says, “it doesn’t seem prudent to add more radiation until we’re sure of the effects.”

“People want service where they live, where they work and where they play,” said Rod De La Rosa, a spokesman for T-Mobile. “We’re trying to roll out more high-speed data transmission by increasing the size of the pipe and not just for voice.”

T-Mobile is just one of the service providers looking to boost their presence in San Francisco. Just last week, Clearwire, a new company providing wireless data service only, came to the Planning Commission with requests to add antennas to existing sites in Bernal Heights and by San Francisco General Hospital.

“Starting last year, we’ve had a big increase in requests for modifications (of existing sites) and for new antennas,” said Jonas Ionin, who oversees cellular antenna requests for the city’s Planning Commission. “What we’re finding today is that the increases aren’t necessarily based on voice traffic, but on data downloads.”

The city already is home to 709 cell sites, some with as many as 12 separate antennas. Although many of the recent requests have been for upgrades and additions to those existing sites, there is also a growing call for new spots for cellular antennas, which means more battles to come.

Those continuing battles have one interesting aspect that other battles can’t always claim. No one is waiting to find out who’s right. “The funny thing is that people call me on their cell phones to complain about the new installations,” said Diego Sanchez, a city planner. We may all be addle-brained from telecommunicating before we find out where it’s coming from. A lot of us grew up in asbestos-infused schools and homes, and we’re probably all eating mercury-infused seafood (not to mention drinking petroleum-infused water); life is hazardous to one’s health.

Tension over cellular antennas mounts in city.

Walking while cellphoning can be hazardous to your health

Having raged and ranted about phoning/texting drivers and pedestrian-oblivious bikers, this space would now like to come to the defense of cellphoning walkers. Not, you understand, multi-tasking/app-studying cellphoning walkers, but talking walkers. Noting the attention that has recently focused on the hazards of distracted drivers, New York Times writer Matt Richtel reports on the new hazard:

But there is another growing problem caused by lower-stakes multitasking — distracted walking — which combines a pedestrian, an electronic device and an unseen crack in the sidewalk, the pole of a stop sign, a toy left on the living room floor or a parked (or sometimes moving) car.

The era of the mobile gadget is making mobility that much more perilous, particularly on crowded streets and in downtown areas where multiple multitaskers veer and swerve and walk to the beat of their own devices.

Most times, the mishaps for a distracted walker are minor, like the lightly dinged head and broken fingernail, a jammed digit or a sprained ankle, and, the befallen say, a nasty case of hurt pride. Of course, the injuries can sometimes be serious — and they are on the rise.

Slightly more than 1,000 pedestrians visited emergency rooms in 2008 because they got distracted and tripped, fell or ran into something while using a cellphone to talk or text. That was twice the number from 2007, which had nearly doubled from 2006, according to a study conducted by Ohio State University, which says it is the first to estimate such accidents.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Jack L. Nasar, a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State, noting that the number of mishaps is probably much higher considering that most of the injuries are not severe enough to require a hospital visit. What is more, he said, texting is rising sharply and devices like the iPhone have thousands of new, engaging applications to preoccupy phone users.

There is the problem, it’s the apps. It is a solvable problem. Just as it is possible, without inviting death and destruction, to talk to a (non-distracting) passenger while driving a car, it is entirely possible to talk on a cellphone while walking. Many who have managed to do so without winding up in emergency rooms have the solution: don’t be accessing travel agencies and restaurant menus, just talk. Furthermore, do not give your cellphone number to anybody but your children and a few very good friends. They do not create angst while you are walking/talking, and will also understand that you turn the thing off when you get home. Anybody else can darn well call the land line and leave a message. The fact that addiction to electronic wizardry and perpetually multi-tasking with it is a fairly recent phenomenon probably explains another interesting discovery:

Mr. Nasar supervised the statistical analysis, which was done by Derek Troyer, one of his graduate students. He looked at records of emergency room visits compiled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Examples of such (hospital) visits include a 16-year-old boy who walked into a telephone pole while texting and suffered a concussion; a 28-year-old man who tripped and fractured a finger on the hand gripping his cellphone; and a 68-year-old man who fell off the porch while talking on a cellphone, spraining a thumb and an ankle and causing dizziness.

Young people injured themselves more often. About half the visits Mr. Troyer studied were by people under 30, and a quarter were 16 to 20 years old. But more than a quarter of those injured were 41 to 60 years old.

Over 60? Except for the unfortunate gentleman strolling off his porch, we don’t event merit inclusion in the data. This may add up to one benefit of being too old to deal with the technological wonders of cellphone apps, and tending to use the cellphone as a phone. The Times article, highly recommended reading for all ages, is full of interesting factoids and neurological rationale. But much still boils down to the old can’t-walk-and-chew-gum adage.

“Walking and chewing are repetitive, well-practiced tasks that become automatic,” Dr. Gazzaley (Adam Gazzaley, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco) said. “They don’t compete for resources like texting and walking.”

Further, he said, the cellphone gives people a constant opportunity to pursue goals that feel more important than walking down the street.

“An animal would never walk into a pole,” he said, noting survival instincts would trump other priorities.

There could be a message here. Perhaps it is that the goal, or at least the top priority, of walking down the street should be to get to your destination in one piece. If you skip the apps and keep your eyes open for texting drivers at cross streets, it is entirely possible for someone of any age to accomplish this task — while talking on the cellphone.

Driven to Distraction – Pedestrians, Too, Are Distracted by Cellphones – Series – NYTimes.com.

Jail time for texting driver

At the risk of invoking the wrath of some readers who disagreed with my proposal to jail texting truck drivers a few weeks ago, I hereby applaud the British Crown Court for sending a texting young driver off to jail where, presumably, cell phones are unavailable. I am sad for her and her family, far sadder for the victim and her family and still angry that such stupidity is tolerated in the U.S.  Here’s the story from Oxford via the New York Times November 2:

Inside the imposing British Crown Court here, Phillipa Curtis, 22, and her parents cried as she was remanded for 21 months to a high-security women’s prison, for killing someone much like herself. The victim was Victoria McBryde, an up-and-coming university-trained fashion designer.

Ms. McBryde was killed when her car was struck while stopped beside the road.

Ms. Curtis had plowed her Peugeot into the rear end of Ms. McBryde’s neon yellow Fiat, which had broken down on the A40 Motorway, killing Ms. McBryde, 24, instantly. The crash might once have been written off as a tragic accident. Ms. Curtis’s alcohol level was zero. But her phone, which had flown onto the road and was handed to the police by a witness, told a story that — under new British sentencing guidelines — would send its owner to jail.

In the hour before the crash, she had exchanged nearly two dozen messages with at least five friends, most concerning her encounter with a celebrity singer she had served at the restaurant where she worked.

They are filled with the mangled spellings and abbreviations that typify the new lingua franca of the young. “LOL did you sing to her?” a friend asks. Ms. Curtis replies by typing in an expletive and adding, “I sang the wrong song.” A last incoming message, never opened, came in seconds before the accident.

With that as evidence, Ms. Curtis was sentenced in February under 2008 British government directives that regard prolonged texting as a serious aggravating factor in “death by dangerous driving” — just like drinking — and generally recommend four to seven years in prison.

There are no winners in this story, only losers and sadder losers. But there could be a small win if it served as a wake-up call anywhere about the fact that driving a car requires two hands and an engaged brain. It is not possible to engage the brain in watchful, decent driving when pieces of it are off somewhere in cyberspace. The only reason why there are not literally thousands of additional casualties every day from the callous stupidity of texting/cellphoning drivers is that other, saner drivers — and cautious pedestrians, who know they are at constant risk — have noticed and managed to avoid them. But texting/cellphoning drivers are outnumbering other, saner drivers at an increasingly alarming rate. They should face jail time.

Victoria McBryde had, herself, been texting her friends before her car broke down. From the side of the road she called her mother, Jennifer Ford, to say she was frightened and worried because the car service company had not appeared.

Ms. Ford told her daughter to make sure the flashers were on and that she was pulled off the road. “She was like, ‘Mom, of course I did these things,’ ” Ms. Ford recalled in an interview.

When she called her daughter back 20 minutes later, no one answered. By that time Victoria McBryde was dead.

Driven to Distraction – Britain Sets Tough New Laws for Texting While Driving – Series – NYTimes.com.

Texting as anti-social networking

A faithful reader of this space, among the several faithful readers enjoyed by this space, weighed in on the texting truck driver (see Sept. 27th below) to say I ought to write about the real problem: texting while conversing. Conversational texting may not be as lethal, except in terms of mortally wounded relationships, but it does indeed seem a growing threat to humankind.

We checked with several members of the Under Twenty generation (is there a generational designation for today’s teens and sub-teens?) who assure us they would never be guilty of such a thing but we’re not convinced they’re telling the whole truth. It is the Boomers and Beyonders, though, who have come late to this perpetual connectedness and pose the greater threat. Faithful Reader confessed to having a close personal relation whom she is about to disinherit because he will not stop surreptitiously, perpetually, rudely texting beneath the table while pretending to carry on a conversation. Or sometimes not even bothering to pretend.

In a former life I had a husband — I no longer have this particular husband — who was prone to walk into a room, immediately pick up the remote and click on whatever ball game happened to be in progress. Guests found this disconcerting; wife found it maddening. The message, similar to the message of incessant texting-while -supposedly-conversing is that something afar is infinitely more important than anything at hand.

If you are a reader of this space, you are surely too cultured and polite to commit inappropriate texting. But you are invited to e-mail it to any texting truckers or friends you may have, in the interest of general civility.