Saturday 22 October 2016

We will never ban apps in cars because they're too handy

Published 21/01/2016 | 02:30

Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Photocall Ireland
Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Photocall Ireland

The Government's last-minute move to leave out messaging apps from new road traffic laws shows that we are no closer to agreeing on how much to limit convenience in the name of safety.

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The initial plan was to outlaw the use of apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook, which currently sit uneasily with the definition of 'SMS texting' in relation to driving offences.

But the provisions had to be pulled because, as transport minister Paschal Donohoe admitted, new cars are now being fitted with such apps as standard.

That doesn't mean that we can tap out WhatsApp messages on our phones without penalty as it remains an offence to "hold" a phone while driving.

But it does raise some basic questions about lifestyle versus safety. And we may soon have to ask ourselves some tough questions about what is worth allowing, even though it probably costs lives.

Lest this sound callous, we already have such compromises in place. There is no question, for example, that high speed causes fatal accidents. Yet we still allow speeds of up to 100km per hour on relatively narrow roads. This is a straight trade-off between safety and utility. It is useful to get somewhere a few minutes quicker. It is so useful that Irish society appears willing to retain such speeds even in the face of road accidents.

Umpteen other conditions and habits also cause accidents. Tiredness is one. Severe stress or medical conditions are others. Even casual movements when driving -- such as reaching into a pocket or tuning a radio - add to the likelihood of injury or death.

One simple legislative tweak might be to compel two hands on a steering wheel at all times, save for a handful of vital operations such as changing gears, indicating or switching lights on or off.

Why don't we do this? Probably for the same reason that we are not legislating to bar the operation of motor vehicles that transfer large amounts of their cabin operation over to touchscreens. In other words, we are willing to trade comfort and entertainment for some safety.

The bad news for those who dislike being confronted with such awkward decisions is that the technology will soon force us to make up our minds.

At the world Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month, much of the automotive technology I saw included various forms of enhanced in-car screen entertainment, communications and apps from systems powered by companies like Apple and Google.

We're going to be seeing a lot of this soon. We can't keep ducking the central issue.

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