Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Generation D

It was Douglas Coupland, the Canadian novelist who thrust the term "Generation X" into popular use with his ground-breaking novel of the same name. Gen X was shorthand for the generation born after the postwar baby boom of the 1950's, a generation that allegedly didn't respect their parents and (gasp!) tended to not believe in God. In his follow-on book "Shampoo Planet," Coupland then wrote about Generation Y (aka Generation Next or Generation Net), the folks born in the mid-1970s who some claim have a pronounced tendency exhibit the so-called "Peter Pan Syndrome:" They don't want to grow up or want to delay it as long as possible.

A lot has happened since Coupland first put pen to paper in the Mojave desert and started the idea of "Generation X." For one, the number of US cell phone subscribers has increased from 340,000 in 1985 to 180 million in 2004, a factual tidbit that comes from the US Geological Survey's analysis of the cellphone recycling problem. That's right, PDAs, "smart" phones, and other portable devices have become so widespread that they have created their own recycling problem. Perhaps even worse, portable electronic devices have created another, possibly more immediate risk: A nation of drivers (and pilots) so distracted that at times we barely seem able to function. Consider just the aspect of text messaging while driving, examined in this New Zealand experiment.

Turns out that trying to dial a cellphone or just talk on one (even with a hands-free device) makes you 4 times more likely to be involved in an accident than if you have your head in the game and your eyes on the road. Using a cellphone while driving is equivalent to having a 0.08% blood alcohol reading. Using a cellphone while driving is equivalent to driving drunk. In California (and many other states) it is illegal to text message or use a phone without a hands-free device while driving, unless you are a law enforcement officer or, apparently, if you are the Governor's wife. Actually, there are so many people violating the hands-free driving law in California that giving Maria Schriver a hard time is just scapegoating. Virtually all of us are doing it.

Distracted driving has become of particular interest to me since I recently purchased a second hand scooter and am using it to commute to and from the airport. Since I sit higher than most drivers and am unemcumbered by a steel cage, I am at once more vulnerable and more able to see what drivers are doing. Let me tell you, it ain't pretty. Here are just a few things people try to do while driving:
  • Read or send text messages/email
  • Dial or talk on the phone
  • Eat and/or drink
  • Put on makeup
  • Make out
  • Read legal briefs, newspapers, books ...
  • Watch videos on their hand-held device
  • Balance a checkbook
  • And so on ...
While riding my scooter the other day, I narrowly avoided a bicyclist who blindly strayed into my path because he was talking on his cell phone and simultaneously eating a sandwich. Hands-free cycling! A ground-breaking, new concept!

In this NY Times video, participants in a driving simulator were asked to use a cell phone and to make an exit for a rest stop. More than half of them missed the exit and many didn't realize it until well past the exit. It appears the flight crew of NWA 188 have shown that it can happen to pilots, too. Surprise, surprise. If you think this isn't serious business, consider that the FAA revoked their pilot certificates for their transgressions. They can appeal to the NTSB, but for now they've lost their livelihood and probably their jobs.

The hard fact to face is that all of us continue to vastly overestimate our ability to multi-task even when faced with conclusive evidence to the contrary. Captain Dave startled me with his recent blog post, a commentary littered with the logical fallacies a) the flying public doesn't understand, b) that this has happened before, c) it will happen again, and d) the end result of NWA 188 will just be more regulations and restrictions to stifle flight crews.

So what of NWA 188 flight crew's performance? They became so fixated on whatever it was they were doing that they missed repeated radio calls and messages from their dispatcher. The "hero" of that flight (hey, we need a hero for every story, right?) was the cabin attendant who called the flight deck to ask for an ETA, thereby breaking the chain of distraction.

Drivers and pilots out there, it's time to face facts: Distractions severely reduce our performance and the results can be expensive, deadly, or both. This isn't about political correctness or totalitarianism or over-regulation, it's about the bigger picture. It's about thinking of someone other than ourselves. The growing epidemic of distraction can be solved on an individual level through self-control and sound decision-making. It's easy: Resist the urge to pull out your phone when you hear it ring or feel it vibrate or believe you just got an email or text message. Heck, if you're going to drive (or fly, or work air traffic), just put your phone into airplane mode. If you want to eat, or put on your face, or conduct business, do everyone a favor - pull over and park. And if you're flying, don't become so infatuated with technology and pretty colors that you lose situational awareness.

We've become a nation of gadget addicts and if we don't break the chain, we will be one nation, united by distraction. So you want to really be a rugged individualist, someone who doesn't run with herd? Develop Higher Order Thinking Skills and increase your performance at the same time: Put down your damn portable electronic device and just drive ... or fly.


Dave Starr said...

you all the way on this, John ... but I predict many won't be. We all _think_we can multi-task just fine ... it's an off shoot of the personality trait that causes so many to assert the can drive better after a few drinks than if cold sober.

Years ago I was involved with pilot alertness/reaction times some simulator experiments with the USAF. The bottom line is, even with hands free devices your concentration and situational awareness is negatively affected.

In Japan it's a law that all cell phones have a one button message that says, "Not now, please; I'm driving".

Makes sense to me, I'm old enough to remember when we didn't have such distractions.

And if the accident safety aspect doesn't strike anyone as hazardous, consider this ... driving demands a lot of your brain .. you are subject to say stupid things or make other mistakes in your phone conversation if you try to talk and drive, could be bad for romance or business ;-)

Ron said...

"I'm old enough to remember when we didn't have such distractions"

I don't disagree with anything you wrote, but just to play devil's advocate, I will note that driving continues to get safer and safer, even in the face of all those distractions. So the technology that is making things more dangerous is at least being kept up with by other technologies which make it safer.

The difference is that most of the distractions are things we can control. Some of them aren't even illegal. Tuning in iPod, for example. That takes a lot of attention, but it's largely supplanted the radio for listening enjoyment while driving.

Heck, even tuning the car radio, adjusting a mirror, or talking to a passenger can be a major distraction. The last time my car got hit it was because the driver's kid was making a ruckus in the back seat and he let his foot off the brake too much while turning to see what was going on back there.

I guess in driving as in flying, anything can bite you. Caveat emptor, and keep your eyes on the road!

Anonymous said...

I sure miss the old adventure stories when you were flying Caravans. Flame outs on final, ice so thick you had to look out the side window to land. The attempted hijacking in Eureka which you handled so gracefully, and that engine failure in IMC while carrying a boatload of ice, deadsticking it into Ukiah (I think it was?) with a 200 foot ceiling.

Don't you miss the old days at least a little?

John Ewing said...


I don't mind you playing Devil's advocate, but to do that effectively one must support their arguments.

You didn't offer any support for your assertion that driving is getting safer. Doing the legwork for you, I found statistics which show that traffic FATALITIES decreased from 2007 to 2008, Americans also drove significantly fewer miles in 2008.

An argument could be made that anti-lock braking systems, airbags, and other technological advances are reducing accident rates or fatalities, yet one could also make the argument that these devices embolden drivers to take more chances.

Opposing arguments are interesting, but without support they become, to me, ... a distraction.

John Ewing said...


Sure I miss flying the Caravan and I appreciate that readers found those stories more entertaining than me droning on about teaching, regulations, and higher-order thinking skills.

Perhaps it's analogous to most TV viewers preferring "Survivor" to "Bill Moyer's Journal."

In any event, I recommend you ease up on the Theraflu.

Ron said...


Sorry, I should have been more specific. You compared driving safety from 2007 to 2008. Try looking at 2008 versus 1958. Or something along those lines.

Aviation technology may not have changed nearly so much in the last 50 years, but look at cars. I mean, they used to make Cadillacs with sharp pointed cones coming out of the middle of the steering wheel. In fact, that's how Sammy Davis Jr. lost his eye.

Anyway, sorry about the distraction.

John Ewing said...


With all due respect, it's your argument and you should be providing the supporting evidence, not me. Verisimilitude may seem compelling, but supporting evidence it ain't.