28 March 2014 No Comments by The Northern Standard

From H G Wells onwards, the great writers of science fiction have often concerned themselves with the question of whether we would be the slaves or the masters of the extraordinary advances in technology that have distinguished the progress of mankind over the past century.

A hundred years ago, the proliferation of the motor car made this a question that concerned society too: as Henry Ford perfected his ambition of building an automobile for “the great multitude” many social commentators, including their most humble manifestation the newspaper leader writer, cautioned about the profound upheaval the Model T would visit on the peace of urban and rural centres and the deleterious effects it would work upon the personalities and habits of its users.

The fearful forecasters did as much to halt the ubiquity of the motor car as present-day Cassandras are doing to hold back the ocean of information technology and its undisputed dominion over the way we work, communicate and recreate today.

The crucible of stress that are the confines of vehicular transport, and the incessant babble woven by the network of smartphones and kindred devices we have become wired into whether always willingly or not, remain to many more bane than benefit – but the growing realisation in Irish society about the dangers created when these two elements of our lives are brought together may be at last about to spark some restraint in their combined use.

A national campaign, ‘Switch Off Before You Drive Off’, is being launched today by the Gardaí and the Road Safety Authority – it seeks to highlight the distraction danger caused by the use of mobile phones while driving, and to persuade motorists to switch off communication devices before embarking on a journey.

People can’t do two things at once – and the inattention to driving arising from trying to have a telephone conversation at the same time, while it may be only momentary, contributed to an estimated 11,274 road traffic accidents in Ireland last year, some of which would have inevitably involved life-altering injury and perhaps even fatality.

Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar has also announced that the number of penalty points that courts can affix on the driving licences of those convicted of an offence of this nature will rise from two to three later this year.

A modest response, perhaps, but one that might bring home to more people than seem to realise it at present that when they talk on a phone while driving they are breaking the law.

It remains to be seen what effect this combined approach of persuasion and punishment will have on reducing a practice that has become so frighteningly commonplace that it can be witnessed occurring on every Irish road on a daily basis.

If we were to see a car pass us with its driver tilting a bottle of whiskey to their mouth, our civic responsibility would undoubtedly compel the majority of us to alert the Gardaí immediately – when we see a motorist with a mobile phone to their ear, we tend to shrug resignedly.

Yet, as RSA Chairman Gay Byrne commented this week: “…research tells us that the distraction caused by using a mobile phone while driving is comparable to driving drunk.”

Everyone will recognise the patent good sense of fostering intolerance for using a mobile device while driving equivalent to that now broadly pertaining in society towards the drink-driver – yet a great many of us will be silently resistant to breaking this potentially fatal habit.

We have allowed ourselves to become persuaded of the necessity to be accessible to constant communication – the foundations of many employment practices and the conduct of family and social relationships are built on this assumption.

It’s just how modern life is, we’re just too busy, we’ve all been persuaded – and perhaps the greatest tragedy of the world we live in is the amount of time, energy and resources devoted to the persuasion of people that they desperately must have something they don’t really need.

Wells and his fellow seers would have been aghast to witness their direst predictions fulfilled – the machine has indeed become the master instead of the servant.

The habit which the current road safety campaign seeks to address will be a very difficult one to break, but hopefully the heightened awareness of the dangers of driver distraction it will create will begin the process of rendering mobile phone use by motorists a great deal more socially unacceptable than it currently is.

For our individual physical and mental well being as well as safety on our increasingly perilous roads, it is surely time we moderated our interactions with communications technology.

It is time to switch off.

The havoc that alcohol misuse can wreak on our roads is now well recognised and the practice of drinking and driving uniformly repudiated, even though it has not yet vanished in totality from the gamut of road traffic offending the Gardaí have to deal with.

The harm that alcohol does in other areas is less visible – particularly that visited upon those in the ‘blast zone’ of someone with a serious addiction problem.

‘Alcohol’s harm to others’ is a theme being foregrounded in the many activities that will run in communities nationwide during the latest Alcohol Awareness Week campaign from Monday next, March 31 until Friday, April 4.

Our relationship with alcohol in this country remains fraught with ambivalence.

Some social and attitudinal changes have been fostered that evoke a sense of reform, a breaking with the historical associations drink had with many of the defining elements of our national culture.

Recognition of alcoholism as a disease amenable to therapeutic alleviation rather than a defect of the mind or character has led to considerable improvements in the resources and supports available to its direct sufferers.

Yet alcohol still remains entwined with all manner of social activity, be it celebration or lamentation, and its marketing and promotion remains aggressive and intrusive, despite some half-hearted gestures towards its control.

And the provision made to help and rehabilitate those who suffer the collateral damage of a partner, family member or close acquaintance’s alcohol abuse remains worryingly deficient.

Those damaged indirectly by alcohol are sometimes like the victims of crime – sympathised with but forgotten in the rush to address the crime itself.

Organisations like Al-Anon have done excellent work in providing a structure of mutual support for people in this position, but the legacy they have to deal with, which can be complex and long-lasting in its effects, remains underappreciated, insufficiently understood and chronically under-resourced.

Hopefully the awareness activities of the week to come will initiate a process that will see at least some of these deficiencies addressed.

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