May 26, 2020
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Terror Firma

Is our penchant for using tech on the move killing us?

Terror Firma
Amit Haralkar
Terror Firma

Watch Out, Danger Ahead

  • The annual cost of road accidents and injuries: Rs 550 billion, close to 3 per cent of the GDP. Conversely, the amount that’s earmarked to improve highways: Rs 103 bn, 1/5th the loss.
  • 80 per cent of all crashes and 65 per cent of near-crashes occur when drivers have not been paying enough attention for as little as 3 seconds.
  • Over 50% of accidents take place close to home/ familiar surroundings
  • Over 90% of people who have a safety incident blame the other party
  • More than 85 per cent of drivers rate their driving abilities as being either excellent or above average, an overconfidence bias that leads to unsafe behaviour on the road


Last week, when 21-year-old Delhi girl Priya Jain was killed while crossing the road, the earphones she’d been sporting caught everyone’s attention and elicited quick murmurs of concern: was technology turning killer on our streets? Danger lurks on every road, at every turn: the gentleman at the wheel reaching out to check the urgent e-mail that just beeped its arrival on his smartphone. The college student who is not able to hear the car honking behind her because she is plugged into her iPod. The mother-of-two, out to pick her kids up, furiously typing out a text message in heavy traffic. We can relate because we have all been there. They are all people like us; and we are people like them.

“It’ll be terrible to ban music players and cellphone use on the road. It is a personal choice and so, it is your duty to be alert. ”
Shrishti Jain, Student, Bangalore

“What happened to Priya Jain is symbolic of the growing problem on the road. Pedestrians, as it is, have a tough time on the roads, since we are not as pedestrian-friendly as we should be. The use of electronic gadgets on the road is just making it worse and this is a big concern,” says Satyendra Garg, joint commissioner, Delhi Traffic Police. “My suggestion: life is more precious than checking a message or talking on the phone.” But that’s easier said than done for the “plugged-in” generation—one that always wants to be in the loop, even while on the move. We’re living in a time when using gadgets—even in precarious situations—has turned into an altogether unconscious, automatic act, and not a conscious, calculated move.

But as much as we may like to cheer the invention of ever slicker tech toys, the truth is: some of them are only getting deadlier. “I find it frightening to see discussions on internet forums about which headphones are the best to wear under helmets—one has ‘better boom quality’, another ‘fits comfortably on the ears’ while on the move,” rues tech guru Rajiv Makhni. “There are youngsters out there who were born into the world of portable music, and the trend to plug in is starting at an even younger age now.” Mumbai-based VJ Anusha Dandekar calls being plugged in a way to create “alone-time” in the middle of chaos. “You want to drown everything out and just carve out your own space. But when I see bikers with earphones on—I feel that is just dangerous.” This is already a concern in many countries, and a steadily growing one in India. Admits Shreya Kapdi, 31, a media sales executive in Mumbai, “I’m on it forever.” “It” is her iPhone. While driving, it’s connected to Kapdi’s car audio system, and she’s plugged in while walking as well. “The city is so stressful and when you’re getting in and out of office, you just use it as an escape mechanism.” It is a similar story for Bangalore student Srishti Jain, 21, who does not leave home without her iPod, being plugged in allows her to tune out of the noise on the street, the “eve-teasing” in particular. “But I make sure the volume is low, so that I can still be aware of the traffic around me.”

“There is a whole generation of youngsters born into the world of portable music. It is an addiction that can be fatal.”
Rajiv Makhni, Technology expert

In purely medical terms, the brain does not quite work that quickly. Exposing it to a selective function, listening to music, for example, can lead to what doctors call ‘cognitive overload’. “When the brain receives an excess of one specialty, it impairs the rest of the functioning, and one of the effects is greatly lowered alertness,” points out Puneet Agarwal, senior neurologist, Max Hospital. It’s what Ram Prasad, co-founder, Final Mile, a behaviour architecture firm, likes to call ‘the cocktail party effect’—where you have plenty of conversations going on, but you can actually follow only one at a time.

But why blame just pedestrians and motorists for ‘callous behaviour’ when the streets are unsafe to begin with? That is the general sentiment on the other side of authority. In the larger sense, “awareness” about the do’s and don’ts on the road only takes care of a minor share of the road safety uproar. “Awareness is not as much a problem as behaviour is,” feels Prasad. “You need interventions, like signages, right at the points of action, like crossroads and busy junctions. In traffic, there is the 3-second rule. All you need is to lose attention for about three seconds, that can lead to accidents.” Would using modern tools of leisure, like cellphones or music players, seem as big a risk as it does at the moment if all the civic systems were in place? “Roads have to be designed from the ordinary person’s point of view. In a city like Delhi, for example, only 10-15 per cent is actually well planned and well laid-out. What about the rest? What about the unauthorised colonies?” asks architect and Urban Arts Commission chairman Raj Rewal.

“Our systems have become counter-productive. The walkways are now parking spaces and the penalties are no deterrent.”
Satyendra Garg, JCP, Delhi Traffic Police

Many activists and state traffic police forces, for their part, have emphasised the need for better city planning and road safety. Yet, over 80 per cent of the casualties on the road are pedestrians or two-wheeler drivers. Traffic fatalities increase by roughly 8 per cent each year, according to official statistics. There’s a sense that the entry point to these issues is muddled. “Almost none of our policies take into account knowledge that has been globally available for the past 30 years,” rues Dinesh Mohan, transport and road safety expert and professor at IIT Delhi. “The fact is that just telling people what not to do, or ‘educating’ them on how to behave on the road doesn’t help. Human beings respond to road design and enforcement, not advertisements,” he says. An all-encompassing ban on using headphones or earplugs while outdoors or driving may be tough to enforce. What may be more useful to look at is how road safety has been addressed in other countries—the UK, Sweden, Japan and the Netherlands, for example, focus on aspects like speed control, proper roundabouts and walkways, and strict monitoring of helmet use, says Mohan.

That’s not to say that mass campaigns have not helped: Oprah Winfrey’s No Phone Zone Pledge, against texting or talking on the cellphone while driving, gathered a sizeable following last year. Time to make a similar pledge in India? Go on then, text your support—but not while driving or crossing the street!

By Neha Bhatt with inputs from Smita Mitra in Mumbai

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