The deadly ‘epidemic’ on our roads. Picture: Sarah Marshall
The deadly ‘epidemic’ on our roads. Picture: Sarah Marshall

The tech fix to deadly road ‘epidemic’

A GROUP of Queensland cyclists are calling on tech giants Apple and Google to use their power to stamp out distracted driving after a cycling buddy lost the use of his legs as the result of a driver distracted by her mobile phone.

In August 2016, Graham Walters was hit by car and thrown 30m after the female driver reached for her phone. He miraculously survived but is now paraplegic.

Mr Walters, 60, is a trained paramedic and was preparing for a bike race in the French Alps when the accident occurred.

"I was doing the right thing, I was on the outside of the fog line," he told news.com.au.

He spent seven months in hospital and the harrowing ordeal let his wife and children distraught, taking an emotional and financial toll on the family.

"It's been horrendous - my legs were my life. Now that's been taken away from me," Mr Walters said. "Every day you wake up and hope something has changed."

He is a member of a cancer charity cycling team called the Vision Crusaders who have raised more than $1.2 million for cancer research since 2011.

In the wake of the tragic accident, fellow member Klaus Bartosch began campaigning for greater responsibility to be placed on smartphone makers to prevent phone use while driving.

Apple and Google already have settings on their smartphone operating systems that allow you to disable distracting notifications while driving but users have to go into settings and turn them on.

"All we want is for them to change the model from opt-in to opt-out," Mr Bartosch said. "So you have to choose to disable it and when you do, you are reminded by your device that you are doing something that could potentially be dangerous."

He views the problem of distracted driving as an issue of phone addiction and believes tech companies have a responsibility to address it.

"It would take them hardly any time at all and it would completely fix the problem," he said.
"We all know we're addicted to our phones," he added, pointing out that the data shows younger people are the worst offenders when it comes to using their phone while driving.

Legislative changes which came into effect in July 2018 in NSW mean drivers are at much greater risk of getting caught using their phone behind the wheel. Picture: John Gass
Legislative changes which came into effect in July 2018 in NSW mean drivers are at much greater risk of getting caught using their phone behind the wheel. Picture: John Gass

'IT'S BASICALLY AN EPIDEMIC'

Last year, NSW Police handed out about 42,000 fines to drivers caught on their mobile phones, with mobile phone distraction increasing as a factor in fatal crashes in the past decade.

Figures obtained earlier this year showed that since 2015, 55,657 Queensland motorists were hit with mobile phone infringement notices. Of those, 2501 received more than one infringement notice.

"They need to get off their phones. It's basically an epidemic," Mr Walters said. "I've been driving down to the Gold Coast at the moment and you go past a vehicle and there's people on their phones."

NSW is set to roll out a system of cameras that will automatically hit motorists with fines if they're caught by the system using their phone. As part of the Road Safety Plan 2021, the NSW Government has implemented legislative changes to allow camera technology to enforce mobile phone related offences. Mr Walters thinks such a camera system should be made Australia-wide.

He would like to see a three-pronged approach to cracking down on the problem. Along with tech companies like Apple and Google introducing preventive measures on devices, other technology initiatives like sophisticated monitoring systems and harsher penalties by law enforcement could also help, he said.

The driver who hit him, Katherine Grace Roche, pleaded guilty to a charge of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing grievous bodily harm in a Brisbane District Court earlier this year. She received a two-year jail term wholly suspended and lost her licence during the period.

Mr Walter doesn't think the punishment is fair.

"It was probably the least penalty we would've accepted. We would've liked to see a jail term," he said. "People need to realise that being on phones cost people their lives."

However Mr Bartosch doesn't believe harsher penalties will deter people or change the culture. He thinks the problem needs to be addressed at the source - and that can only be done by device makers.

Graham Walters was days away from leaving to go and tackle the Haute Route Alps ride in France when he was hit by a car and is now a paraplegic. Picture: David Clark
Graham Walters was days away from leaving to go and tackle the Haute Route Alps ride in France when he was hit by a car and is now a paraplegic. Picture: David Clark

THE RESPONSIBILITY OF BIG TECH

Last year, Apple announced a new feature for its iPhone called Do Not Disturb While Driving, which debuted as part of the iOS 11 operating system.

If enabled, the feature automatically detects when someone is in a car and blocks notifications and texts and stops drivers from opening apps on their phone.

The update was a notable change and welcomed by road safety experts but Mr Bartosch would like to see such a feature become a default setting, rather than something users have to opt into.

In a Change.org petition, he accused Apple of simply trying to look like it was doing something and told news.com.au that "nobody is using it".

He says smartphone makers should only allow certain apps - like Google Maps for instance - to be used while driving under special circumstances. Most other functions should be momentarily disabled and inbound calls should be received only if the phone is connected to a hands-free Bluetooth system.

Additionally, SMS messages would not prompt a notification until after the car was parked and automatically respond to senders with the message: "Sorry, I am driving and will respond when I arrive at my destination."

The other big thing Mr Bartosch would like to see introduced by smartphone makers is for the device to keep a clear log of when its functions have been disabled so that police can check mobile phone use in the wake of an incident.

"So Apple and Google, will you accelerate the implementation of these and possibly other simple changes to IOS and Android to help save the lives of our teenage drivers, husbands, wives, grandparents and friends, and all those who are injured or killed by distracted drivers?" the petition asks.

Mr Bartosch is the founder and chief executive of media and technology company 1st Group and is no stranger to grassroots campaigns like this, having been involved with a previous consumer campaign that received widespread attention. He hopes to gain a similar amount of awareness this time around in the hope of achieving something positive out of such a tragic situation.

He says he has tried to contact Apple and Google but has not had a response.

At the time of writing, 3431 people had signed the petition.


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