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Now the New York Times says EMS computers are dangerous [distracted driving]

Bowie Pointer Ridge Ambulance

I thought that the New York Times’ sensationalistic tirade against the dangers of billboards must signal the end of their “distracted driving” crusade. After all, I imagine it would be hard to continue taking yourself seriously once you start suggesting that we need to regulate the outside environment on the grounds that if it is interesting to look at drivers might be distracted by it.

But alas, I was wrong.

Yesterday Matt Richtel (the reporter behind the Times’ Distracted Driving series) outdid himself yet again. The latest dangerous distraction he has uncovered on the roads? The computers in ambulances, police cars and fire trucks that first-responders use to communicate with 9-1-1 dispatch.

Let me say that again.

The New York Times ran a story about how the computers, navigation and communication systems that help guide police, firefighters and EMS to the scene of an emergency are potentially distracting to their professional drivers.

From the New York Times:

They are the most wired vehicles on the road, with dashboard computers, sophisticated radios, navigation systems and cellphones.

While such gadgets are widely seen as distractions to be avoided behind the wheel, there are hundreds of thousands of drivers — police officers and paramedics — who are required to use them, sometimes at high speeds, while weaving through traffic, sirens blaring.

The drivers say the technology is a huge boon for their jobs, saving valuable seconds and providing instant access to essential information. But it also presents a clear risk — even the potential to take a life while they are trying to save one.

Scared yet? Don’t be. In an uncharacteristic bit of honesty, Richtel admits that his sensationalistic story is pretty much just anecdotes and fear mongering.

Data does not exist about crashes caused by police officers or medics distracted by their devices. But there are tragic anecdotes.

Tragic anecdotes and shoddy or nonexistent statistics? If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s what the entire Distracted Driving series is based on.

Is the “Runaway Prius” the greatest marketing hoax ever?


It doesn't look so safe and reliable now...

As someone who grew up in the Detroit area, I’ll be the first to admit that I have been taking tremendous pleasure in the woes of Toyota recently. It is nice to see the idolized Toyota on the ropes for a change. And when I read about the Runaway Prius the other day, I simply thought “More good news for Ford!”

But my friend Kevin over at the blog America, Love It or Not makes the rather persuasive case that the runaway Prius incident in California could be an elaborate hoax.

Here are some of the facts he found that don’t seem to make sense:

  • He pressed the brake to the floor, but it didn’t slow down the car. Most cars with good brakes can lock up all four wheels at any speed. A Prius isn’t exactly a torque-machine. Its acceleration is pretty weak and should be easily overpowered by the brakes.
  • The car was accelerating for 20 minutes before it could be stopped. I don’t know if any of you have ever driven on a freeway with other cars before, but it is nearly impossible to go 90 MPH for 5 minutes – let alone 20 – without hitting traffic. Unless he was passing cars on the shoulder (unlikely), he would have definitely hit another vehicle in 20 minutes.
  • He called 911. If you were speeding along at 90 MPH and unable to stop, would you call 911 (if it wasn’t a hoax)? What is 911 going to tell you that you don’t already know? Wouldn’t you be scared to take a hand off the wheel when weaving in and out of traffic and passing on the shoulder?

You can read the rest of the post here.

If this is a hoax, it might be the finest corporate negative campaigning in American history. In the last 24-hours alone, there have been over 1,990 stories published about the incident according to Google News. This is the kind of negative publicity that money cannot buy. And it would suggest that the American business world (or some lone gunman) is finally embracing the rough and tumble tactics that are a hallmark of our elections.

Of course, being a native Michigander, I can’t help but think that a campaign this devious would be beyond the reach of Detroit’s marketers. It is quite frankly just too effective to have been the brainchild of an industry whose ads and messaging strategies have been almost universally horrible for decades. Which is why I’d bet that if it turns out to be a hoax–which I suspect it was–we’ll find out that it was the work of one or two enterprising fellows.

Life, Liberty and Highway Rest Stops

DrivingThere is a reason that James Madison did not guarantee access to a free toilet in the Bill of Rights. It is because in 1789, despite recently winning independence from a brutal colonial Empire, no one could imagine a regime so oppressive that it would charge people to use the bathroom.

But of course it was not long before some enterprising huckster came up with the idea of exploiting people in their time of need by charging them to use the restroom. This idea spread like wildfire, particularly in Europe, where nickel-and-diming Americans and tourists is an obsession.

But pay toilets caught on here too. Fortunately, the efforts of the Committee to End Pay Toilets in America managed to successfully ban pay toilets from most of America.

But today we face a new threat to our inalienable right to pee for free: budget cuts.

As states across the nation struggle to balance their books, they are looking for any possible way to cut expenses. They are shuttering schools, slashing public safety spending and putting off routine road repairs. But in Arizona, a state that has seen more than its share of budget cuts, residents have finally stood up and said some things are too scared to sacrifice. Those things are Highway Rest Stops.

The New York Times has the story:

PHOENIX — The people of Arizona kept their upper lips stiff when officials mortgaged off the state’s executive office tower and a “Daily Show” crew rolled into town to chronicle the transaction in mocking tones. They remained calm as lawmakers pondered privatizing death row.

But then the state took away their toilets, and residents began to revolt.

Arizona has the largest budget gap in the country when measured as a percentage of its overall budget, and the state Department of Transportation was $100 million in the red last fall when it decided to close 13 of the state’s 18 highway rest stops.

But the move has unleashed a torrent of telephone calls and e-mail messages to state lawmakers, newspapers and the Department of Transportation deploring the lost toilets — one of the scores of small indignities among larger hardships that residents of embattled states face as governments scramble to shore up their finances.

“People in this state are mad about this,” said State Representative Daniel Patterson, a Democrat from Tucson who has sponsored a bill that would allow other entities to reopen and maintain the rest stops. “This bill may have the broadest support among members of any bill this year.”

Some residents see something sinister in the closings. Betty L. Roberts, who lives in Sun City, west of Phoenix, said the topic was a hot one among her friends.

You can read the rest of the story here.

[Hat tip: Erin]

Now the NYT wants to ban billboards too [distracted driving]

2008-11-16 Electronic billboard at Rome-Hilliard Rd. & I-70 on the far west side of Columbus, OhioNot content merely to fear monger about the immanent national threat posed by motorists who chat on their cell phone, the New York Times has decided to take on a new bogyman: electronic billboards.

From the New York Times:

Safety advocates who worry about the dangers of distracted driving have a new concern beyond cellphones and gadget-laden dashboards: digital roadside billboards.

These high-tech billboards marry the glow of Times Square with the immediacy of the Internet. Images change every six to eight seconds, so advertisers can flash timely messages — like the latest headlines, coffee deals at dawn, a cheeseburger at lunchtime or even the song playing on a radio station at that moment.

The billboard industry asserts there is no research indicating they cause crashes, and notes that the signs do not use video or animation.

But to critics, these ever-changing, bright billboards are “television on a stick” and give drivers, many of them already calling and texting, yet another reason to take their eyes off the road.

Abby Dart, executive director of Scenic Michigan, a nonprofit group trying to block construction of new digital billboards in the state, calls the signs “weapons of mass distraction” and says they can be more dangerous than phones.

As someone who has spent entirely too much time driving across Ohio, I can tell you that at least in the nations farm belt, large, electronic billboards are not so much as a distraction as a safety feature. After all, what else is there to keep you from falling asleep after 100 miles of cornfields?

Texting ban moves forward in Michigan [cell phones]

Free Refills reader John sent in word the other day that the Michigan legislature is moving ahead with a texting-while-driving ban. This is despite the fact that a recent study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that such bans have no impact whatsoever on safety.

Here is the rundown, courtesy of MIRS.

Texting a message while driving would be a secondary offense punishable by $100 as part of compromise legislation that unanimously moved out of the Senate Transportation Committee, 4-0.

The movement of HB 4394 and HB 4370 to the Senate floor sets the stage for a vote to ban texting while driving. Even though Committee Chair Jud GILBERT (R-Algonac) isn’t opposed to making texting and driving an offense police could pull a driver over for, he said he realizes there isn’t support in the House.

“The fine is OK,” he said. “Something is better than nothing.”

The House version set the fine at $500, but the version reported today ratchets that fine down to $100. The plan is to make the bills a bi-cameral, bi-partisan package and today’s action lines up a final vote on that plan.

Taunting the competition with negative ads [video]

Negative ads—particularly the corporate variety—are delightful. But what is better than an ad that smears the competition? An ad that simply taunts the competition, like this new one from Audi that is running during the Olympic broadcasts.*

Email subscribers may need to click through to see the video

*Yes, Audi is a German company, but its US advertising agency is San Fransisco-based Venables Bell & Partners.

Cell phones aren’t dangerous, toddlers are.

Screamer.For months I’ve been saying that when it comes to distracted driving, passengers—crying children, in particular—pose a greater accident risk than cell phones. That is why I proposed banning carpooling.

It seems that others are finally catching on. Today the Consumer Reports blog ran a post about how dangerous diving with kids can be and the best ways to minimize the risk. Of course, the post was inspired by the fact that the reporter had recently rear-ended a BMW while trying to deal with a distracting child.

[Consumer Reports]

This is where I draw the line [distracted driving]

Regular readers of this blog know that I am very skeptical of schemes to ban the use of cell phones in cars. After all, there is little reason to believe that using a cell phone while driving is any more distracting than, say, adjusting confusing radio controls or driving around with a car full of kids. So why ban cell phones and not carpooling?

But there is one distraction I think we can all agree needs to be banned: cooking-while-driving. I don’t care how much you spent installing a full-service kitchen in your car, cooking is hard enough as it is. Imagine trying to do it while cursing down the highway at 70MPH–you’d probably get distracted and burn your dinner!

Give it cupholders and I’ll take it [Americanization]

Tata Nano - ( View In Large Size)

If only there was a place to put my Big Gulp...

America, they say, is a melting pot. We welcome foreign people and products to our shores with open arms (particularly if they are sleek, Asian-manufactured electronic products).

But is America really ready to embrace a $3,000 Indian “People Car” which gives new meaning to the terms “sub-compact” and “bare bones?” TBM’s Matthew DeBord thinks so—provided that engineers slap a few cupholders in the American version, that is.

[The Big Money]

Free parking in NYC? There’s an app for that.

broken parking meterWhat better example of the American entrepreneurial spirit than the iPhone app store.  In the year or so that it has been open, tens of thousands of Americans have have come up clever programs to solve almost all of life’s little problems.

Many of these apps—particularly the navigation ones— have been literally life changing for their owners. For instance, I use the New York Times app every day to avoid supporting print journalism (stupid NYT, I would gladly pay for your free app).

But the best app I have seen thus far came out of a civic experiment that New York City embarked on a few months ago. Confident that apps and open data had the potential to improve city life, the Bloomberg administration opened scores of city databases to app developers.

Creative types came up with all kinds of great apps, ranging from ones that let you check the health inspection records of whatever restaurant you’re dining at to apps that allow you to report bad cab drivers from the back seat.

But the best app was one called NYC Broken Meters. It uses city data on broken parking meters in order to help urban drivers find that elusive free parking space.

What could be more American than that?

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