Safe to Bike Post Covid?

A sign that says bikes can use full lane, but the street is full of potholes and construction debris. This is a photo from Cambridge, Mass.
Safe to Bike Post Covid? Image Credit: DearSmartphone

Dear Ms. Smartphone, I was getting my bike fixed, and they showed me a copy of the op-ed you wrote during Covid about commuters and ebikes. I know there are rules about driving and bikes- what about ebikes and phones?! Do you still think it is safe to bike post Covid? I am worried about taking my bike on the road these days because the drivers are running through stop signs and red lights, etc. They also seem to be on their phones more. Brian, Corte Madera

Dear Brian: Accident data reveals that we are at greater risk even though people are driving less. There is evidence that drivers are indeed running through stop signs and red lights more. And with fewer cars on the road, vehicle speeds have increased. You might have less worry about phones- drivers in cars have already reached peak talk!

But, to answer your question, are we safe to bike post-Covid? The dangers you mention are less so about phones, and more so about a cultural shift in how we treat driving and what we do when we get behind the wheel. 

Impaired:

The National Highway Safety Institute gathers statistics on fatal and severe accidents from  trauma centers. These are where ambulance drivers deliver severely injured patients. What they observed in 2020 at the height of Covid is somewhat startling.  Nearly two thirds of drivers tested positive for at least one active drug, including alcohol, marijuana, or opioids. Prior to Covid, about half of the drivers (50%) tested positive for alcohol or drugs but during Covid all substance use increased. The percentage with THC in their bloodstream doubled.  Interestingly, pedestrians and motorcycle drivers had similar levels. There was not enough data on bike riders.

My takeaway is that these accidents on the road are not  “accidents” as much as  “impairments”.

When it comes to assessing phones and driver error, researchers continue to lack adequate data. That’s because people don’t end up in a trauma center clutching their mobile phones. The phones usually fly out the windshield or lie under the seat. Unless law enforcement officials requisition phone or text logs from the telecom company and since that is seldom done, there is no reliable way to measure distraction rates from phones.  That said, key loggers may begin to tell a different story.

Imperiled:

Sadly, we know that traveling at 55 mph, it takes about five seconds to stop the vehicle, or a football field length. Answering a text while driving takes attention off the road for roughly the same period. Yet we can’t quantify the rate of cell phone caused accidents. And, these days, distraction in the car takes new directions- like fumbling with the complex navigation system, thumbing knobs  up and down to tune the speakers, and, on some cars, glancing at the oversized digital screen in the middle for the blind spot cameras. 

Since you are on a bike and hopefully will continue to be, what can you personally do to stay safe? The obvious ones are to wear a helmet and tuck your phone out of sight. It’s not illegal to use a phone while riding but it defies common sense. It’s an irony that when you ask bikers why they bring their phones along with them they answer, “in case something happens.” Hopefully never.

ILLUSION:

With that in mind, at this time of the year when it gets dark early, the majority of  bike accidents take place in late afternoon and after dark. So, it would be a good idea to limit your ride during these hours, or travel them on a grade- divided  path.  Of course, that could limit the usefulness of an e-bike for commute trips. Meanwhile, remember that motorcycle drivers and pedestrians out there are also impaired, so tread cautiously.

In closing, a nod to humility. While smartphones seem to be at the core of so many modern issues and problems, here they are not the driver.

Teen Ready for Smartphone?

 Is  Teen ready for Smartphone? A sketch with a violet colored background of a cell phone case and a provisional driver's license. Used  to promote idea of a provisional phone for teens.
Teen: Ready for Smartphone? Hello provisional phone!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My Dad reads this column aloud to my brother and me so I hope he will see this. I am ten years old and my birthday is next month. I am responsible and accountable. How do I tell my Dad I am ready to have my own smartphone? Emma, Novato

Dear Emma: This is one clever girl! It sounds like you are a preteen on your way to a smartphone. But, quickly do a financial check in.  If you think it will strain your family’s finances, offer to help.

Since you read the column with Dad you might know that I am a proponent of the provisional phone. Newly minted drivers, and you will be one in five or six years, do not get on the road without adult supervision and training. Provisional drivers engage in classroom instruction, then they spend requisite hours practicing on the road with an adult, and finally they must pass both a written exam and road test. 

Even after they earn their license, there are restrictions about driving after dark, transporting other kids in the car, and, of course, a zero tolerance policy for alcohol and drugs.

Hello Provisional Phones!

In my years in transportation, I always thought we should have similar strictures for kids. While some countries ban phones in schools, parents have to come up with their own rules for home and after school.  How do they know if their teen is ready for a smartphone? You can search more of my articles on provisional phones here, but here’s a glimpse.

Cars are dangerous if we go too fast and ignore the speed limits. On the Internet  there is a similar issue: we need to slow down the velocity of our emotional responses and reactions.  What you post is searchable. So a provisional phone might flash a message before we hit send: “Do you need to post this now? Would you want your parents or teachers to read or see this five years from now…” It sounds like common sense, but in the heat of the Internet it’s easy to forget.

Deep Speeds

In cars we go too fast, but on the Internet we go too deep. If you are not mindful, chatrooms, Tik-Tok and other media lead you down rabbit holes. They subtract time that you would otherwise spend reading a book, getting outdoors, or just being footloose. Even though we have digital connections, we need to nurture spaces so that we remain productive and creative offline.

Finally, your parents and teachers are concerned about the content you will be exposed to. There is, in practicality, no way to shield a clever teen with a curious mind. You will encounter a lot of “trash on the road” and bad actors who run shady sites. In addition, and this is vital, mental health professionals worry about online teens and peer pressure. Social media makes it easy-peasy to bully someone, post an inauthentic self, or make you envious of  someone else’s (doctored) images. 

The Internet would be a better experience if the other drivers, i.e. people on it had real identities, and we could know when we were being bought and sold.  Classes on digital literacy are a first step and maybe your school or library offers instruction on coding and software too. If you spend time in the sausage factory, seeing how apps are written, then you can inspect them for things like SDKs . You will be wiser and less vulnerable.

Minimalist Phones

Finally, and this is where it all begins- you and Dad should have a discussion about hardware. If it was a car, you might pine for something cool, like a Rav4 or a Jeep.. in phone talk that’s an Apple 11 or later and  a Samsung S21 with 5G. It turns out that there  are stripped down phones, called minimalist phones, akin to the old Fords and Chevys of the car world.

 These minimalist phones  have limited features – often phone, text, and GPS or they grey-scale the display (note the affiliate links if you click through). The Boring phone, is a minimalist phone that began as a New Zealand kickstarter campaign with kids specifically in mind. The Boring phone doesn’t appear to be in stock right now. I am not advocating for any particular hardware- for that matter you could get a flip phone and have scaled down features. It sounds like you are asking for more. I hope it works out, and you will write back about the choices after your birthday.

Phones Morphing into Cars?

Lowly Worm in an Apple Car of old. Will the future bring a phone morphing into a car?
Apple Car w/ Lowly Worm (Richard Scarry illustrator)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Are phones becoming cars or vice versa? My friend took me out for a ride in his new car and whipped out a phone when he wanted to unlock the doors and move it  forward a few feet. Then I read in the news this week that Apple, the company that makes my phone, says they plan to make a car. I don’t see a car company, like Ford or GM, hinting that they want to build phones. Please explain this topsy turvy! Bill, Fairfax.

Dear Bill: It’s a great questIion to begin the New Year. In an early DearSmartphone column (now archived) I note that Gen X and Gen Z car buyers seem more intent on how the vehicle will synch with phones and less interested to look under the hood or kick tires.

But, I don’t think it’s the prowess and performance of ApplePlay that makes people, like you, think that an Apple car might be roadworthy. I believe it is an issue of integrity and trust.

The Bread Crumb Trail:

Future vehicles will leave a bread-crumb trail wherever and whenever they travel ….from entering the roadway, logging miles, and an ever-present chatter with sensors and satellites. Think of it like being in an airplane that is never completely outside the range of the control tower.

So, future revenue may come less from selling cars and more in renting out this “car data.” Imagine that you are motoring near a big box store (assuming they still exist) and you are prompted with a flash-sale, if you’ll just alter your route and get there soon. Or, you have entered the coordinates to travel to a new destination, and the dashboard offers hotel and dining recommendations. More insidious is the dashboard recording how often you stopped for booze, even though you are technically underage.

People are worried about data privacy, about their interests and habits being bought and sold. Technically, this is happening today. Black boxes installed in cars collect data on the speed you are driving, whether you stop at signals and stop signs, and how heavy you are on the brakes. Insurance companies promise to reward good drivers and help teens but what else can they do with this information? Meanwhile, GPS routing, over our phones provides a very complete picture of where we have been. Ironically, one of the first legal cases about these privacy rights occurred when law enforcement officials attaching a GPS device to track a suspect’s vehicle.

In Apple We Trust?

So, a pivotal reason that people think Apple may make a better car might have less to do with engineering and more to do with the trust and integrity that people place in the Apple brand name. According to a 2019 presentation by CEO Tim Cook, Apple was differentiating itself from other Silicon Valley providers by valuing privacy and keeping more data local to the device. Today, in 2021, Apple is defending its policy of locked phones and secure passwords in a suit that could wend its way to the Supreme Court .

That said, there are also technological reasons to anticipate that Apple may be up to something ‘moving’.  It’s said that Steve Jobs considered building a car in 2008 and Apple has been making strategic hires in technology since 2014 .  Strategically, Apple is rumored to use a different battery chemistry, not the one favored by car-manufacturer Tesla in the U.S. A LFP, lithium iron phosphate battery is said to be less volatile, less likely to overheat, and its ‘monocell’ design would free up space inside the battery pack. This could reduce the cost of an Apple powered vehicle and give it more range.

Power Rangers:

Neither Apple nor it Silicon Valley rival, Google, have a natural advantage with tires and chassis. However, they do have a head-start with batteries, and batteries will power future vehicles. The people’s car might actually begin with the people’s smartphone. That said, it should be noted that Google/Waymo has been testing self-driving cars since 2009 and has logged more self-driving miles than any other company.

But, summing up, the Apple Car has always been first and foremost in my own household. Ever since my children read the book and crooned at the cartoon pictures by children’s author Richard Scarry (see image cartoon) they have been rooting for Lowly Worm in his Apple Car.