November 2011

The Nation Reviewed

It tolls for thee

By Guy Pearse
'I don't dig texting', 2009. © Zawezome/Flickr
Generation Text

Ping! New message received. “Hi, this is Dr Carl O’Kane from the Townsville Hospital emergency department. I was taking your medical history so we can treat what looks like a broken tibia but, as you seemed more interested in your texting, I’ve gone to treat other patients. How about texting me when you’re ready to focus on your injury?”

Dr O’Kane hasn’t yet sent such a message but as more Gen Ys present with ‘gadget-related injuries’ (GRIs) only to tune out in the emergency department, he’s considering it.

O’Kane has spent the last eight years working in emergency, watching a big increase in GRIs. Stand by the kerb at rush hour and you will soon see the reason. When I tried this recently, around a third of those waiting for the green walk sign were nursing a phone or tablet or MP3 player – what I call a ‘tweetypod’. Oblivious to buses whizzing by inches away, even those closest to the kerb were engrossed – texting, tweeting, bopping, gaming and updating their Facebook statuses. The light changed and the zombies marched, miraculously avoiding collisions without looking up. From above, it probably resembled a tweetypod game, minus collisions and bonus points. Science uses the theory of ‘complex adaptive systems’ to explain the way flocks of birds and schools of fish moving at rapid speed somehow avoid catastrophe. While the rest of us dance awkwardly with oncoming pedestrians, trying to work out who’s going which way, Generation Text’s innately understood rules seemingly make their complex system work.

Yet, with people talking and texting on treadmills, escalators, footpaths, even ‘hands-free’ at urinals, the odds seem stacked in favour of incident and accident. Earlier this year a woman texting in a Pennsylvania shopping mall tripped straight into a fountain – the leaked CCTV footage has entertained hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers. In New York, a teenage texter fell down a manhole into a drain. Both are reportedly looking to sue. It’s hard not to laugh at such incidents; hard not to marvel afresh at Darwinism when you see a kid riding on the footpath with headphones on, no helmet, and texting. So long as it’s not too serious or close to home, it’s rollicking comedy at the expense of people asking for a wake-up call.

O’Kane gets the funny side, reeling off enough GRI anecdotal banter to fill a stand-up show. The only story that wasn’t pure accident involved a stubborn old-style clamshell phone and a hapless rectum. “I was tempted to text him, too,” the doctor chuckles. Yet he’s the first to acknowledge that most GRIs are anything but funny. The emergency department doesn’t see the chronic damage to fingers, thumbs, joints and tendons from repetitive gaming and texting – otherwise known as ‘Nintendonitis’ and ‘Wii-knee’. O’Kane mainly sees broken wrists, fractured tibias and ankles, and dislocated shoulders. “People protect their gadgets as they fall,” he explains, “sacrificing their bodies instead.” The injuries are hidden in traffic accident and ‘trips and falls’ statistics, with the role of gadgets under-reported. In car crashes, people worried about liability downplay tweetypod distraction. Then there’s the embarrassment factor: patients are reluctant to admit they were updating their status as they walked into a post or fell down the escalator. Minor alcohol-related injury often invokes great merriment, but GRIs are extremely uncool. Some are also fatal.

In Sydney last year a woman listening to headphones was run down and killed by an ambulance that reportedly had its sirens on. Near Geelong, an 86-year-old grandmother died recently when the car in which she was travelling was rammed by a distracted 19-year-old man who’d made two phone calls and sent eight text messages in the prior 20 minutes on the road. In Melbourne, another young man walking two friends to their car was distracted texting and fell to his death from the seventh floor of a multi-storey car park. While training on his bike near Lake Macquarie, a 52-year-old triathlete and father-of-three was killed by a car whose unlicensed driver was texting. Last month, a 15-year-old Melbourne girl was killed when she was struck by a train, reportedly while listening to her iPod with headphones.

The carnage highlights the frightening extent to which distracted gadget-users endanger themselves and others. Various studies suggest that using a phone while driving, even if it’s hands-free, quadruples your chance of crashing, and texting while driving may have as much impact on reaction time, if not more, than a 0.08 blood alcohol concentration. This year, say worried insurers, an estimated 11 billion text messages will be sent by Australians while driving. Would we cross the road with our heads down if we knew this?

Last year the Pedestrian Council of Australia launched its ‘Lambs to the Slaughter’ ad campaign, depicting sheep-headed pedestrians tuned out with tweetypods. PCA spokesman Harold Scruby says a GRI epidemic looms. Crossing the road unsafely is illegal, he says, but “unless you use Donald Duck of Disneyland, California, you can give police whatever particulars you like. This is why around 60% of fines given to cyclists go unpaid.” The difficulty of catching texters on the road makes enforcing laws against texting while driving equally hard. Recent studies suggest that texting alone has caused over 16,000 road deaths in the US, and that cell phones are a factor in 28% of crashes. Having played down the risks, promoted education over regulation, and supported front groups to oppose new laws, gadget companies are being compared by some to cigarette companies. Meanwhile, lawyers are seeing a new niche, insurers are reluctant to cover negligent drivers, and Oprah Winfrey is on a personal crusade to make cars a ‘no-phone zone’. The US Secretary of Transportation has declared his intention “to eliminate all mobile devices in all vehicles”, regulators are making laws more explicit and increasing penalties, and in some cases extending them to pedestrians.

To some it’s the nanny state gone mad, but O’Kane has little faith in alternatives. “Young people think they’re bulletproof, and go right back to gadget-related distraction even after a serious injury. When you’re stitching them up in emergency they’re taking video and texting it to their mates! On their deathbeds, they’d be updating their status.” Ultimately, he says, the road toll has fallen by nearly half since the 1990s because government “took away the power of people to harm themselves and others – imagine the carnage now without random breath-testing, seatbelt laws, vehicle safety standards and bike helmets.” Nanny hasn’t done too badly, and GRIs are just as serious an issue. It’s what the literature calls ‘an emerging injury-prevention concern’, but Dr O’Kane is more blunt: “This is the new drink-driving.” As the toll grows, Nanny has good reason to get involved.

Guy Pearse
Guy Pearse is a research fellow at the Global Change Institute, University of Queensland, a former political adviser, lobbyist and speechwriter, and the author of High & Dry and Quarterly Essay 33, ‘Quarry Vision’.

Coalminers' world tour
Phillip Adams and Guy Pearse in conversation on Late Night Live

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