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Danger! Texting! December 1, 2011

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , trackback

From Technology Review comes this brief article about a smartphone app that warns its users of approaching cars. The app is called WalkSafe and is being developed by researchers at Dartmouth College.

This device brings to mind to a trope about how people distracted by their gadgets do dumb things, and how they may be protected from their folly. In 2006, there was Rick Mercer’s Blackberry helmet to protect the addled craniums of Blackberry addicts. In 2008, there was a story about padding lampposts in London to soften the blow as Blackberry addicts walked heedlessly into them. Earlier this year, there was the actual story of a woman who fell into a fountain in a shopping mall while texting, which was captured by CCTV cameras and posted to YouTube. More recently, Rick Mercer ranted about the people he almost ran over while they crossed the street, texting without looking:

The WalkSafe app will help to alleviate this problem. Maybe?

As ever, one first worries about the miracle of risk compensation. Recall this earlier discussion of the aware car, a system that monitors drivers for symptoms of exactly the same sort of distraction. A potential problem is that that such a system could actually encourage drivers to indulge in distractions, under the impression that the system will save them. Similarly, pedestrians busily texting may assume that WalkSafe will let them know if a car is approaching, at least on the camera side of their phone. In that event, having outsourced their situational awareness to their gear, pedestrians may walk and text even more obliviously than before. Such behavior could negate any safety gains provided by the app.

Here is my suggestion: Create an app that temporarily locks out the texting function of the smartphone when the carrier is in a crosswalk. Many crosswalks in Canada are equipped with speakers that beep or chirp in order to alert blind pedestrians. Perhaps the smartphone mike could pick up the noise, lock out texting, and snap texters into a heightened state of situational awareness, allowing them to save themselves from collisions.

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