Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ontario Bill 118 Musings

Ontario's new distracted driving legislation apparently does not have the exemption for two-way radios that many similar laws include. Indeed, at first glance, it seems that the situation in Ontario is far worse than south of the US border. In my opinion, though, the battle over distracted driving is one that the international amateur radio fraternity probably can't win and in some circumstances ought not to fight. Instead, we should use the Ontario situation to do what we do best: look for technical solutions to this problem and highlight our ingenuity in the face of changing social norms.

The Ontario legislation is frustrating to amateurs because they have been trying to draw a distinction between cellphone use and two-way radio use, but I'm not sure that distinction will hold water for very long. For instance, the ARRL has pointed out in a letter to the US National Safety Council that there is a substantial difference between two-way radios and other kinds of distractions. The reply to ARRL from the NSC is more carefully worded than most hams have noted (italics mine):
"We are not aware of evidence that using Amateur Radios while driving has significant crash risks," Froetscher wrote in her August 24 letter. "We also have no evidence that using two-way radios while driving poses significant crash risks. Until such time as compelling, peer-reviewed scientific research is presented that denotes significant risks associated with the use of Amateur Radios, two-way radios or other communication devices, the NSC does not support legislative bans or prohibition on their use."
Amateurs seem to assume that no such research will be forthcoming, but there is a big difference between 'not proven' and 'not true'. As far as I know, the lamp of research has not shone brightly on the use of two-way radios while driving because researchers have naturally focused more intently on the far more pervasive habit of speaking on a cell-phone while driving. Of course, until the research is done, neither I nor you know what will result, but my guess is that it will be found that use of a two-way radio is to some degree risky. At that point, I imagine the NSC will happily recommend that mobile two-way radio be conducted hands-free, just like the Ontario legislation.

If that is the case, the amateur radio fraternity needs to decide. Do we want to suggest that we are a breed apart, specially careful with our use of radios so that they don't distract us whereas they do others? The ARRL's letter seems to suggest this when it says,
"The ARRL is aware of no evidence that [mobile] operation contributes to driver inattention," the Policy Statement asserts. "Quite the contrary: Radio amateurs are public service-minded individuals who utilize their radio-equipped motor vehicles to assist others, and they are focused on driving in the execution of that function."
Surely it is research that determines if amateurs truly are focused on driving when they use their radios. Many a public-minded person who imagines that he or she drives completely safely with a cellphone in hand has been caught up with distracted driving legislation; they won't accept that amateurs should be exempt if research shows that two-way mobile use poses a risk. If we persist in arguing this, we will undercut the very theme of public safety that provides an very important basis for the amateur radio service.

Instead, let's use the Ontario situation as a testbed for hacks and homebrew solutions that might need to be used across the world if research shows two-way mobile communications present a safety risk on the road. Remember, Ontario does not say you can't talk on the radio; it just says you can't twiddle knobs. Can the common activities of a mobile amateur radio operator be conducted in a wholly hands-free way? Obviously bluetooth audio connections and the like solve the voice link. What about switching between repeaters as one drives in and out of their ranges? In a future post I'll outline a possible solution to that problem.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Bruce. I very much agree with your point of view on this issue. In certain regards, I would not be at all surprised if it turned out that operating an amateur radio while driving is even MORE dangerous than a cellphone, but for different reasons. Cellphones are distracting because they are full duplex; you can immerse yourself in a call and forget your physical surroundings because so much of human verbal communication involves a real-time assessment of the other party's state/attentiveness.

    The danger of distraction due to amateur radio that is incurred by the actual talking I suspect is significantly less than that of a full-duplex phone, since the speaker is completely deprived of real-time concurrent feedback from their audience. However, setting up a cellphone is relatively straightforward: dial a number that is of one or two fixed lengths (7, 10 or 11 digits), then wait for the system to connect you. With an amateur radio, however, we have all sorts of do-dads, knobs and settings. How many of us really know the increasingly complex interface to our mobile rigs inside out? I know that I don't know my FT-8800R that well. Usually, we resort to a subset of the functionality (e.g. stay in memory mode and step through a preset list of repeaters), but we all have had the experience of bumping the wrong button and putting the rig into some "mystery mode". What happens next? Of course, you're trying to figure out a complex piece of hardware while frustrated (and probably in rush-hour, given the high proportion of mobile operation that take place during the commute), and are probably MORE distracted than you would be if you were on the phone!

    Our priviledge as licensed amateur radio operators is that we get access to otherwise off-limits radio frequencies, PERIOD. Last time I checked (and I used to be an IC examiner), there was no vehicle operation component to the Canadian amateur radio exam!

    Chris Parker