Startled off the road

In April, the UK government tested a 10-second siren that would sound through the phones of citizens. Concerns were raised about the sageness of testing this siren for drivers. Particular concern was raised about sounding it on a Sunday when less experienced drivers normally take to the roads. Many critics believed it would prove to be a major distraction that could potentially cause chaos on the roads.

Fortunately, the predicted chaos did not occur for various reasons. The CEO of MasterDrive, Eugene Herbert, explains: “Despite being sounded slightly earlier than expected, millions of people did not receive the alert. There are also no news reports about drivers being startled while driving by the sudden blaring from their phones. 

“Thus, from a testing perspective and the impact on road safety this was good news for the UK government. Once the siren is properly implemented, however, can the same be held true? In the run up to the test, citizens were extensively warned about it and provided with the time it would occur. Yet, in a real-life scenario, drivers will have neither forewarning or the assurance that nothing is actually wrong.”

Instead, when that alarm sounds in the future, it is likely to elicit a different response. “A sudden, loud and unexpected siren blasting from your phone will almost certainly remove attention from the road and possibly cause dangerous reactions such as swerving in alarm. Additionally, the alarm is intended to warn citizens of impending serious weather conditions or terror attacks. Thus, this will add a level of panic that will make it difficult for drivers to properly return their attention to the road.

“UK ministers believe the risk to the public will be minimal and outweighed by the safety benefits of the system which could save many more lives. While there is merit to this argument, it is foolhardy to proceed with a system like this where no concrete measures are taken to reduce the effect it could have on drivers. Could it even be argued that it weakens the laws and measures taken to reduce distracted driving if the government itself is not giving it due regard?”

Government officials are working together with cellphone carriers in the implementation of the warning system. “Perhaps, one possible solution to this relevant concern is to also work with companies like ping, that develop apps that reduce the need and even desire to use one’s phone while driving. A special siren, that is not as jarring for drivers, may be the solution to balance the good that an early warning system can bring without the danger of startling drivers.

“Additionally, to reduce drivers finding it difficult to concentrate on the road again and avoid picking up their phones, the warning can be read aloud and provide information about timelines and what drivers need to do in the best interest of their safety both on and off the road.”

An early warning system certainly has many benefits and is already used in other countries. “This is not to say, however, that other safety concerns should be cast aside or not given the attention it should,” says Herbert.