Respectful Insolence

A worthy recipient of a Darwin Award

Yesterday’s post sucked all the blogging life out of me for the moment, so here’s a quickie. If there’s anyone who deserves a Darwin Award, it’s this guy here:

AUBURN – A man talking on a cell phone while walking Wednesday on railroad tracks was hit by a train and killed. He was the second person in the area to be killed by a train while talking on a cell phone in the past two weeks.

Auburn Police spokesman Scott Near said the man killed just after noon was walking on the tracks between the 1200 and 1400 blocks of C Street Northwest, where the rails parallel the street and there are no signs or crossings.

Security personnel at Emerald Downs racetrack said the man was a 49-year-old groom at the track, and co-workers there said he had been hired about two months ago after working with horses in Texas.

Witnesses, including the train conductor, saw the man talking on the phone. The engineer sounded the horn, but the man apparently didn’t hear it. The train was going about 80 mph and couldn’t stop in time to avoid hitting the man. The Amtrak Cascades train was heading north from Eugene, Ore., to Seattle.

The accident is under investigation, but Near said the death appears to be accidental and not a suicide.

Just a hint, but if you’re going to be walking on railroad tracks, it might be a good idea to be paying attention. On some lines, the trains are fast enough that by they can be easily heard there isn’t a lot of time to step off the tracks, something that’s especially true if there are a lot of curves that can muffle sound and make it impossible for the conductor to see you until it’s too late to stop. Strangely, this seems to be fairly common:

Train safety advocates say the distraction of texting or talking on cell phones along railroad tracks is becoming an increasing problem…

Marmie Edwards, a spokeswoman for Operation Lifesaver, a rail safety education organization, said the distraction of using cell phones near train tracks is a growing concern. The group has just finished a new safety film for middle school students that warns about the danger of talking or texting on cell phones near tracks.

“We are seeing more of it,” she said. “People are engrossed in what they are doing, maybe looking down to text and not seeing the train, not looking up. Or maybe they don’t hear the horn.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see how someone can be so engrossed in a phone conversation or text messaging that he can’t hear an oncoming train. If it’s that damned distracting then it might just be a good idea not to be walking on railroad tracks when doing it. This isn’t rocket science.

Comments

  1. #1 Uncle Dave
    May 18, 2008

    Noticed a motorist swerving in their lane just the other day, as individual approached I noticed that not only were they holding a phone to their ear, but they appeared to be doing paperwork on the seat next to them as well.

    I believe there are cases where if a crash investigation is warranted, phone records are checked.

    I wouldn’t mind a certain degree of “thinning out of the herd” but often times innocent lives are taken as well due to others negligence.

    Oh well, California invokes its no phone usage while driving law in July (hands free OK).

  2. #2 Matt Penfold
    May 18, 2008

    Here in the UK it has been a criminal offence to drive whilst holding a mobile phone to your ear for some years. It is not an offence to be speaking on the phone using a hands-free device.

    Normally the penalty is a fine and some points in your licence (which if you get to many within a certain period of time will result in your loosing you licence for at least a year).

  3. #3 Grimalkin
    May 18, 2008

    Matt Penfold – that’s just silly. It’s the diverted attention, not the loss of one hand, that causes the most accidents. But I guess it’s harder to catch people if they are using a hands-free device…

    Anyways, I used to live near some railway tracks. Every so often, some kid would be walking home with his earphones on and not hear the train coming. It’s made even more ridiculously stupid by the fact that it was a tourist train, so it goes fairly slowly. But there’s a lot of twists and turns in the track, so the conductor might not see someone until he’s too close to slow down. That’s why they blow the whistle almost constantly, but kids have their earphones on.

    I always get panic attacks when I see people crossing the street with earphones on.

  4. #4 Pineyman
    May 18, 2008

    Unc -

    No phone usage is a crock. We’ve had it in NJ for about a year. Works for nada. The police ignore it, officials ignore it, everyone ignores it. I commute 30 miles one way and I see on average at least 10-15 drivers each way daily on cell phones, plus the odd number doing exactly what you saw – and I take back roads to avoid the worst drivers. I even received the NJ “We’re #1″ salute after honking at a guy at a light who was talking & doing paperwork on a clipboard and stayed sitting at a green light. I leave at 6am and have had people ignore traffic signs etc. while gabbing.

    I agree with you…thinning the herd is a great idea. Maybe we need a “Scofflaw” lane for drivers who are competing for a Darwin Award…and maybe we can symbolicly sacrifice an executive at a cellphone company for every X number of DA aspirees, since they take the tobacco company model and say “Gabbing while driving” does not seriously impair your driving skills – like have him try and cross the “scofflaw” lane at peak usage…see how fast they change their tune…

  5. #5 DLC
    May 18, 2008

    One hates to cite such things as ‘definitive studies’, but
    the TV Program “Mythbusters” did some tests which indicated that talking on a handset cell phone caused more impairment than having 3 to 5 drinks before getting behind the wheel.
    While not covered in the program’s tests, I suspect based on personal experience that it is indeed having the handset to your ear which is a large piece of the problem.
    The handset calls on your attention span much more so than
    simply talking to blank air. Try it yourself sometime and see if I’m right.

  6. #6 Liesl
    May 18, 2008

    DLC: I think it’s a matter of being distracted mentally rather than physically. If you’re having a conversation with someone you tend to think about that, not the task you’re trying to accomplish (driving). Just my opinion, of course, but I suspect this comment will be riddled with mistakes as I am also attempting to watch Victor/Victoria. :->

  7. #7 Azkyroth
    May 18, 2008

    My interpretation is that mental distraction plays a role, but that having the headset to your ear is enormously more distracting. Additionally, having only one hand on the wheel, while it usually works well enough for normal driving, dramatically decreases your ability to quickly take appropriate evasive maneuvers, and the distraction makes it harder to initiate them before it’s too late. This has certainly been my experience; since I got a phone with a built-in speakerphone option I’ve found that entering the number at a red light, or flipping it open when I receive a call, and setting it on the seat beside me while I focus my attention ahead allows me to maneuver safely unless the caller either pushes me to engage in some demanding mental exercise or aggressively tries to prolong the call once I’m ready to end it.

  8. #8 khan
    May 18, 2008

    My favorite spottings are the folks talking on a hand held cell AND smoking; this is often accomplished by cradling said cell between left shoulder and ear, while using right hand to smoke.

    This arrangement requires the tricky crossover maneuver of using the right hand to throw ashes, and eventually lit cigarette, out the left window.

    On the bright side, there’s always the possibility that such folks will set themselves on fire.

  9. #9 Dr Aust
    May 18, 2008

    The same “negatively selected behaviour”, though in a much less extreme form, can be seen in my UK neighbourhood in people (commonly < 25 yrs old) who bicycle along busy and narrow suburban roads wearing no bike helmet but wired to a personal stereo/MP3 player with in-ear earphones.

  10. #10 Dr Aust
    May 18, 2008

    Ooops – I’ll try that again.

    The same “negatively selected behaviour”, though in a much less extreme form, can be seen in my UK neighbourhood in people (commonly < 25 yrs old) who bicycle along busy and narrow suburban roads wearing no bike helmet but wired to a personal stereo/MP3 player with in-ear earphones.

  11. #11 Ahistoricality
    May 18, 2008

    The main reason to criminalize handset use while driving, frankly, is to clarify responsibility in the event of an accident. I’m no lawyer, but my recollection of my insurance papers suggests that it’s a huge liability issue, as well.

  12. #12 Dr Aust
    May 18, 2008

    Aaargh! Last try:

    The same “negatively selected behaviour”, though in a much less extreme form, can be seen in my UK neighbourhood in people (commonly less than 25 yrs old) who bicycle along busy and narrow suburban roads wearing no bike helmet but wired to a personal stereo/MP3 player with in-ear earphones, as Grimalkin mentioned above.

    Of course, my cyclists offering themselves for the evolutionary experiment didn’t really have a choice about cycling on the road. It takes a special person to walk on the rail tracks when there is street alongside. Though perhaps there was no sidewalk and he was worried about auto traffic?

  13. #13 AL
    May 18, 2008

    Regarding the hands-free-should-be-banned too, If it’s the conversation that is, indeed, distracting should there be a no-talking rule for any other person in the car with you? What about the radio? I can se futzing about with a cellphone held to your ear, but hands free (barring some requirements for turning it on and off), seems to me no different than having a person seated next to you with whom you are conversing.

  14. #14 eddie
    May 18, 2008

    Isn’t talking on a hands free while driving similar to talking to a passenger in the car? I’ve been more distracted by interesting radio programs. Should we ban car radios as well as passengers (without a gag)?

    On the other hand, folk who smoke and drive should be treated the same as drunk drivers. They are under the influence of a judgement-altering drug. And they smell bad.

    At least the guy who walked into a train wasn’t in a position to hurt innocents around him.

  15. #15 argotnaut
    May 18, 2008

    @AL: I have seen studies that show hands-free phone conversations ARE different from talking to someone next to you. For one thing, the person in your car is looking at the same things you are. They will tend to “help” you by slowing down their speech or talking less when the driving environment is complicated. Sorry I don’t have time to look for the exact study/ies right now, but you can probably find them easily.

    Another thing that I wonder about is the fact that phones cut off a lot of your usual hearing spectrum. When this happens, your brain actually supplies the missing sounds — you think you’re hearing them, but you’re not. I wonder how much cognitive load this uses — enough to impair other processes, maybe?

  16. #16 Azkyroth
    May 18, 2008

    For one thing, the person in your car is looking at the same things you are. They will tend to “help” you by slowing down their speech or talking less when the driving environment is complicated.

    Who the hell have you driven with that I haven’t?

  17. #17 lee
    May 18, 2008

    This is from a university professor: while stopped at the edge of the school parking lot waiting to merge into street traffic, a student talking on a cell phone WALKED into his idling car. There is no such thing as multi-tasking; especially when it comes to talking on the phone paired with a physical activity. The brain switches back and forth from one task to the other, it is not doing two things simultaneously. It’s those moments in between switching that are the danger.

  18. #18 TheBrummell
    May 18, 2008

    This can’t qualify for a Darwin Award: it’s just too common and (pardon the pun) pedestrian. Darwin Awards are reserved for those truly exceptional individuals who remove themselves from the gene pool in some spectacular and unique manner. Getting hit by an 80mph train while talking on a cell phone is just too easy, and likely happens dozens of times each year globally.

    As for thinning the herd… this is one of the few examples I can think of where the person getting eliminated poses almost no risk to any other person. There’s the psychological trauma to the train’s crew, I suppose (it can’t be fun to watch your train kill a person), and there may be a minor risk of damage to the train and flying debris causing injury to some third party, but overall this seems like a pretty self-contained mechanism of natural selection.

  19. #19 Jon H
    May 18, 2008

    The appropriate song: Darwin, by John Wesley Harding

  20. #20 Helie L
    May 18, 2008

    Just the other day, I saw someone texting while driving. It was on an under-construction Interstate, which makes it that much worse. The second I noticed him, I told my mom to “get far away from this dude as fast as you can, because he’s going to be in an accident!”

    If using one hand to hold the phone is bad, then moving one’s eyes away from the road to type in addition to holding the phone must be even worse!

  21. #21 Mike from Ottawa
    May 18, 2008

    My favorite spottings are the folks talking on a hand held cell AND smoking

    I saw a guy doing that on a bicycle once. I always get a laugh out of the absurdity of people riding a bicycle and smoking anyway, but this guy went one better. See, it was raining, and I guess he didn’t want to get his hair mussed or his cellphone wet, so he was also holding an umbrella. To make it even better this was on a bridge. If he’d had to steer quickly, he’d have to drop cellphone or umbrella, and I’ve no doubt the decision-making would have killed whatever chance he had of reacting in time. I was on my bike too, so I gave him a wide berth so that if he subtracted himself from the gene pool he wouldn’t take me with him.

    I see lots of cyclists wearing earphones and while it might be nice to have some music, I rely so much on hearing to know what is around me that I’ll be content with running songs through my head.

  22. #22 decrepitoldfool
    May 18, 2008

    Hmm, I think I just thought of a use for a high-powered laser mounted on the front of a train. Put ten watts or so into a small beam and you’ll get their attention fast. Burns will heal eventually.

    After converting my office mate to commuting on a bike (yea!) I am now wishing I hadn’t because he insists on using his iPod. Doh!

  23. #23 DLC
    May 19, 2008

    Being no psychologist, I can only speculate that there is more distraction to holding a phone to your ear than talking into open space. I know that for me, talking back at, or even yelling at the car radio doesn’t take my mind off the road the way holding a handset and talking into it does.
    Again, I’m only going from personal experience and anecdotes, so I make no claim to have any science to back me up.

  24. #24 Dunc
    May 19, 2008

    If it’s that damned distracting then it might just be a good idea not to be walking on railroad tracks when doing it.

    Or you could just simplify that to “it’s not a good idea to walk on the railroad tracks.” Over here (UK) they’re all fenced off.

  25. #25 jayh
    May 19, 2008

    “I have seen studies that show hands-free phone conversations ARE different from talking to someone next to you. For one thing, the person in your car is looking at the same things you are. They will tend to “help” you by slowing down their speech or talking less when the driving environment is complicated. Sorry I don’t have time to look for the exact study/ies right now, but you can probably find them easily.”

    Actually the majority of phone studies did NOT actually test against conversation. Assumptions (like the one above) were made about conversation. Indeed talking to someone in a car frequenty creates involuntary eye contact, which would INCREASE your risk. And dealing with cantankerous children in rear child seats even more so.

  26. #26 synapse
    May 19, 2008

    @TheBrummell: Here, if a train runs over a pedestrian, the train is delayed until police can complete an investigation. There is often only one set of tracks, so the whole set of north or south-bound trains can be delayed for hours. The delay is a major inconvenience for commuters and other people who want to take the train, especially because accidents with pedestrians are not predictable, and therefore discourages the use of public transit.

  27. #27 SteveM
    May 19, 2008

    Sorry, I hate to refer to studies without a reference, but I have heard (reported on NPR) studies have been done comparing hands-free to hand-held and there is no difference in driving ability; both are equivalent to drunk driving. I also seem to recall the Mythbusters used hands-free in their test and confirmed the result.

  28. #28 Brian
    May 19, 2008

    “On the other hand, folk who smoke and drive should be treated the same as drunk drivers. They are under the influence of a judgement-altering drug. And they smell bad.”

    Damn skippy. Let’s just kill them.

  29. #29 natefoo
    May 20, 2008

    Train horns are ear-shattering, I have no idea how one could fail to get someone’s attention.

  30. #30 Flying Fox
    May 21, 2008

    I went to Japan last fall with a school study group and the program put us all up with host families, many of which were at a distance that required commuting by train. The trip leader knew that a group of college students set free in a big city are going to party well into the night. The trains in the area tended to stop around 12. So among his instructions was the interesting line: “if you miss the last train, do not try to follow the tracks home.” We students agreed it was a reasonable enough advice. What we did realize until close to the end of the trip, one of the students in the study group years ago actually pulled that off. No small feat, as he had to ride the train for an hour to get to and from his host home, and go under two rather long tunnels.
    Another fun factoid: In 2006, Kyoto, Japan saw a reduction in fatal automobile accidents (I think as much as 23%) but fatal accidents involving bicycles raised the number of traffic accidents. In Japan, there is no tendency to wear a bicycle helmet. In four months, I saw never saw a single cyclist wearing a helmet, but plenty of people holding an umbrella while riding a bicycle during rush hour.

  31. #31 tom sheepandgoats
    May 23, 2008

    You may have saved my life, Orac. Thanks.

    I don’t have ocassion to walk on RR tracks, much less while talking on a phone. But if the need ever arose, I think I would have reasoned that trains are so damned loud you couldn’t possibly fail to hear one coming. Now I will be extra careful.

    The last thing I need is a Darwin prize, especailly draped over my tombstone.

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