Can People Be Protected from Their Own Stupidity?

What are you going to do? People can’t drive with their smartphones so lawmakers make it illegal to drive while texting. And if you want to talk on the phone while driving, you have to have a “hands-free” device. People definitely shouldn’t drive while distracted…but plenty of other distractions are still legal. For one thing, eating while driving. In fact, in Chicago, where all these laws are in effect, I believe it is still legal to use your smartphone’s navigation program. If you’ve ever tried to use the iPhone Google Maps application while driving, you know that is easily as distracting as anything else that could be going on in that car. In fact, to use many “hands-free” phones, you sometimes have to resort to looking up and even punching in the number (e.g., if you can’t get the voice recognition to work) and that is no different than texting…except maybe that it takes place over a shorter period of time.

Of course some people have more ability to pay attention, and even to notice when something they are not focusing on is happening around them. I’m not talking about multitasking…I think some people might just pay more attention in general. This is the person that notices you are looking the other way and avoids running into you. Probably, we have to admit that some people are just smarter than others. But that doesn’t stop smartphone makers and programmers from trying to make up the gap with engineering.

I recently read an article about a new wave of smartphones and related applications being designed to make it easier and safer for pedestrians to use their smartphones while walking! Apparently, record numbers of people are walking into manholes, into intersections, into signs, and whatever else because they are texting and not looking where they are going. In the article, one person managed to find a silver lining — because so many people have cellphones they can get an ambulance to the injured person more quickly. But the bulk of the attention was on how smartphone makers can improve the use of their devices to make them safer. For example, a transparent screen so you can see the sidewalk (and the person you are about to run into) through your text message. Or, “text to speech” (and vice versa) to avoid having to look at a screen and push buttons.

Maybe we need “heads-up displays” for smartphones so you can see the message in transparent letters on special goggles. Or, maybe we should just make a helmet law for smartphone users. Or, maybe we should just make a helmet law for everyone all the time because you never know when a distracted texter is going to run into you.

That is actually the worst part of the whole thing. You can no longer feel that, by driving defensively, you are giving yourself the best likelihood of avoiding an accident because some knucklehead may still randomly just ram into you or walk out in front of your car because they aren’t paying attention. Accidents happen. Many, in retrospect could have been prevented. But accidents caused by not paying attention to what you are doing are completely preventable.

At some point, we just have to wake up and be more responsible. Pay attention. Remember that there are other people sharing the planet. Don’t do stupid stuff. At some point, I wonder if the more we try to protect people from themselves, the stupider we all get.

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