​Don't play dumb: smartphones pose real dangers

​Don

By Gaby Grammeno on 27 June 2018 To say smartphones have been widely adopted in Australia sounds like an understatement – rather, it seems like the smartphones have adopted us, clinging parasitically to the end of everyone’s arm and constantly grabbing our attention.

In a bus or train carriage, anyone reading an old-fashioned book made of paper is the odd one out. Everyone else has their neck bent forward, their gaze on the screen of their phone, pad, tablet or other device. That’s to say, except those with an earpiece and hidden microphone, chatting away to some invisible interlocutor.

If a hypothetical anthropologist from another planet landed on Earth to observe us – or our own great-grandparents, for that matter – they would be struck by the sight of these plastic de facto appendages adhering to the hands of pedestrians and others, and clutched between the neck and shoulder of all sorts of people, even excavator drivers on construction sites.

Needless to say, this addiction to the state of connectedness through cyberspace has all sorts of downsides.

The most obvious are the ones we’ve all seen countless times by now – the person stepping off onto the pedestrian crossing without glancing up to see if the traffic has stopped, their attention wholly monopolised by their phone; and the driver, phone to ear, talking away, one hand on the wheel, one eye on the road and most of their brain on their phone conversation.

Smartphones and accident figures


Accident and injury statistics tell their own story. A four-fold increase in the risk of a collision for people using their phones while driving has been well-publicised, and a seven percent rise in the number of deaths on Australian roads in 2017 – after decades of declining fatality rates – has been attributed at least partly to driver distraction due to mobile phones.

Other in-car distractions play a role too, of course, what with screen-based systems for GPS navigation, entertainment and communication all liable to interrupt a motorist’s concentration.

Injury and fatality figures for phone-users on foot paint a similar picture. Pedestrian deaths have reportedly spiked in recent years in most parts of Australia and overseas, and distractions such as phones and other hand-held devices are often blamed. It’s not difficult to find dashcam video footage on social media of people being hit by cars as they cross roads immersed in their phones, oblivious to traffic. And it’s not just texting, talking or screen-surfing – even listening to music with earbuds can mean a person will not hear the approach of a vehicle, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Smartphones, while a vital necessity for doing business, can present a major distraction on construction sites. Messaging, game-playing, talking and even sharing inappropriate images to harass or entertain co-workers can all impair workers’ spatial awareness, slow their response times and generally make accidents more likely, especially if operating heavy or dangerous equipment such as cranes or excavators.

Penalties


Fines and/or demerit points apply in all Australian states and territories for using a hand-held mobile phone while driving, as studies have shown that phone-using drivers are less aware of road conditions, more likely to miss road signs, respond more slowly and are more prone to entering risky gaps in traffic.

Despite the evidence of risk and the rules that apply, however, investigations have revealed that about one in four drivers admit to reading or sending text messages while driving. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, the rate of phone use behind the wheel is even higher. And about 10 per cent of drivers even admit to reading emails or checking the web while driving.

Road safety, police and transport authorities are naturally intent on strategies to discourage the use of smartphones while driving or walking. Amendments to road transport laws in New South Wales are set to take effect from 1 July 2018, enabling camera-based enforcement of laws banning mobile phone use while driving, and traffic lights embedded in the pavement are to be trialled in Sydney to help protect phone-absorbed pedestrians.

Internationally, authorities are grappling with the same issues. In Hawaii, as of October 2017, pedestrians can now face a fine of up to $99 (for repeat offenders) for texting while crossing at a traffic light – a world first, with other countries sure to follow, in their efforts at deterrence. In some Australian states, police can issue fines of up to $110 to pedestrians if they are seen to ‘walk without consideration to other road users’, which could surely include texting while walking.

Employers’ obligations


Depending on the nature of the work and the workplace, it may be apparent that smartphone use while working is a clear safety risk. This is particularly likely to be the case if the job involves driving or operating dangerous equipment.

In this situation, employers’ duty of care means they must do whatever is reasonably practicable, to eliminate or minimise the risk. Such decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis and tailored to the realities of the workplace. Under some circumstances, a policy banning the use of smartphones while working may be the most responsible course of action.

This story is part one of a two-piece series on Smartphone Hazards. Part two will be published next week.
 

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