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.

Checking Phones for Work?

Watching the baby at home. Watching my phone too?

A cartoon of three Hasidic men , ech carrying an infant in a baby carrier that they wear around their shoulder. One carrier is pink, one green, one yellow
Men Pushing Baby Carriages or checking phones for work!? Source: The Forward.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I manage a sales team and seldom take more than a day or two off from work. Since Covid began our office is all remote and I am checking the phones for work. This Fall I am taking a few weeks off to stay home with our new baby. In principle, I should not have to check my phone at all. But is that realistic? The people at work say they will respect my time out of the office, but I don’t want them to let them down either. Teo, Boulder

Dear Teo: Phones make it difficult to find that work-home balance and it has to be doubly difficult when babies or children demand our attention. Checking in with co-workers while you are off-duty seems innocuous, but it subtracts time and attention from your kids. During Covid, as you noted, phones became an office-on-demand. Now you have to retrain your sales team, and yourself, to use it more selectively, i.e. when to be checking phones for work.

It seems like the programmers of Silicon Valley have felt your pain! Or became new Moms and Dads. The newest iPhone operating system (i0S 15) has a feature called Focus. It lets you set time blocks when you are available, and for whom. Say you are driving in the car. The Focus setting disables all incoming calls and texts. It sends would-be callers or texters a stock message:  you are unavailable but will circle back.  When you are indoors and quietly reading a book, your phone can continue to screen callers, or allow rings from that sales team.

Focus is a suitable name for this new function. That said, it’s been available on phones with less bells and whistles as “Do Not Disturb.” Back then, you didn’t need to have i0S 15, or any software at all to enable the feature. Just a watch and alarm.

How to Focus:

Writers, scientists and graduate students use features like Focus all the time. They require activity blocks, without phones, for a period of deep concentration. They might be working on a laptop or desktop, and probably just one or two programs, like the terminal, a spreadsheet, or word processor. 

Meanwhile, the co-workers  trying to reach you are not going to know whether you are deep in concentration or changing a diaper, so Focus’ messaging helps. It lets them know when you are  checking in and will circle back. And, with practice, Focus will keep you from secretly picking up the phone to see if you missed something. You can always allow one phone, say from your boss, to override the settings.

Not ALways So Focused!:

Alas, at the other end of the spectrum, at home, it’s not so tidy.  Parents can’t easily set boundaries that young kids will adhere too. Infants demand attention on their own schedule and have an uncanny ability to sense when they getting any less than 100% of their parents’ attention. You might be tempted to put the kiddos in front of their own screen. Yet, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for kids until they’re 18 to 24 months old, except for video chatting. For children ages 2 to 5 their recommendation is an hour or less of screen time per day. Real parents know that it is hard to resist introducing screens when you need some downtime. So, if you turn to the screen, do it together and make it a shared activity.

Be aware that  it seems innocuous to sneak a call to the office when you are taking a stroll together, watching over the playground, or cleaning up the toy box. We don’t know how micro- moments add up, but there are hints that eye to eye contact and baby-talk time provide developmental boosts.

As you set your phone’s boundaries, with or without the help of I0S, remember that time and attention are your most precious resource. They are the only things  you give away, and cannot get back. Enjoy!

Digital Etiquette Phone Calls

An old style phone handset dangling by its cord, and a scissor about to cut that cord. The handset is red.
Digital etiquette for phone calls has changed as we cut the cord.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I used to just pick up the phone and call my closest girlfriends and family members. Now it’s changed and I have to plan it in advance! First I send a text to find a time in common, then a calendar invite, and finally the phone call. I am finding this digital etiquette for phone calls to be exhausting. Sandy, Tiburon

Dear  Sandy: You are right, the etiquette around phone calls has changed. Not everyone uses the protocol you described, but it is becoming common. During Covid, I encouraged people to reach out and touch someone but I did not consider all the steps it would take!

There are a couple of reasons for the change in digital etiquette, and I am not sure you can fight them. First, there are everyday occasions when people shouldn’t be interrupted by a ringing phone. Mobile phones, by definition, are mobile. So, they might ring when we are at a PTA meeting, sitting in a church service, or taking a conference call on Zoom. The ringing phone will distract both us and the people nearby. You could turn off the ring-through settings on your phone, but that sort of defeats the purpose of getting a spontaneous call from a friend. 

Settle In:

If you send a text first, it is less obtrusive. And it allows both parties to be at a place and time where they can settle in and be ready to pay more attention to each other. 

The second reason things have gone silent is related to ‘volume control.’ It’s volume as in the number of messages and communications. Digital media makes increasing demands on our attention. “Alone Together….” by Sherry Turkle notes that we need to control how much time something is going to take and fit it into our schedule.  Sadly, controlling our relationships becomes a factor in this advanced (or backward) communications era. 

There are some calls that defy this digital etiquette. Emergency phone calls from a trusted source break through the scheduling. Likewise, phone calls on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day do too; we don’t typically arrange a time to talk with our parents unless we are on different time zones or continents. Most importantly, shut-ins and isolated older people need no text or calendar. They are happy for the daily check-in.

There isn’t a good way that I can think of to reset our phone habits although the Covid lockdown did bring change, many for the good. In the UK, the number of calls in early 2020 increased by about 50% and the call length increased significantly. The same source says that in the US, call lengths on Verizon increased by 33 percent. For sure, many of these calls used video options, like Facetime.

Car Talk:

Some final words: suppose you follow the protocol, first send a text to your friend, then a calendar invite, and when you finally connect they are driving in the car- hang up. Some people like to schedule calls during their travel trips. You don’t want to be responsible for their distracted driving.

There are three types of distractions: visual distraction, manual distraction, and cognitive distraction. Newer phone-in-car systems like Android Auto and  Apple CarPlay greatly minimize the first two. But, the third type, cognitive distraction, is vastly underrated. 

Here’s an example: how many times have you arrived someplace and been surprised you got there? The detail of the travel trip escapes you because you were  concentrating on a conversation, deep in your own thoughts, or just plain tired?  Some call this highway hypnosis, while others think of it as  zoning out.  Most of the time in the car we can do two things at once- talk and drive- but there are those split-second moments when the conversation diverts our attention from the road. You can’t wish that time back. So, if you are a true friend and you reach someone who is driving, just say ‘No’. Friends trust friends to call each other, and to keep them safe. 

Best of luck as you to sort out the new digital etiquette for phone calls, and hopefully it leads to good conversations after all.