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New App CrashAlert warns mobile phone users of approaching obstacles

It’s the latest social phenomenon born out of new technology – that moment when you are walking down the street and your mobile beeps, indicating a new text message, and as you go to fire off a witty retort, you bash straight into someone who you have not noticed, who has strayed into your path.

Thankfully, texting or speaking on your mobiles whilst driving is now illegal, but as walking and texting has become the new social norm, so apparently has a rise of collision-related injuries.

textingwalking

©AFP/Relaxnews 2013

A new app called CrashAlert could be the answer to our ‘not looking where we are going’ woes, using a distance-sensing camera which scans the path ahead and then alerts the user to any approaching obstacles.

The way it works is by utilising the camera in your smartphone as a second pair of eyes, and whilst you are looking down at your text message, the camera is looking forward. Whenever it senses an object approaching, a red square quickly flashes up on the screen, alerting the user to a potential hazard.

Wherever the position of the square is on the screen also indicates the direction of the obstacle, so users possibly do not even have to look up to move out of the way.

©CrashAlert

©CrashAlert

It may seem a little like technology gone mad to some folk, why not just stop and reply to a text message or phone call when you are stationary. But Alex Stoker, who is a Clinical Fellow in Emergency Medicine at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey, thinks that the consequences of walking into a hard object can be quite serious.

He told the BBC: “If it’s a tall object like a wall or a lamp-post that someone walks into, then one might expect facial injuries such as a broken nose or fractured cheekbone. If on the other hand the collision results in falling over, then they’re much more liable to things like hand injuries and broken wrists. There’s a complete spectrum but it is possible to sustain a really serious injury.”

The inventor of CrashAlert, Dr Juan David Hincapié-Ramos, who hails from the University of Manitoba, thinks the app is a necessary tool in today’s modern world, and provides a level of safety that shouldn’t be ignored: “What we observed in our experiments is that in 60% of cases, people avoided obstacles in a safer way. That’s up from 20% [without CrashAlert].”

It’s a little like wearing a pair of blinkers when you concentrate on your mobile phone, as Hincapié-Ramos states: “You are also narrowing your field of view because of the attention you are placing on the device. By doing this, people stop noticing whatever is in front of them and that’s what causes a crash.”

©CrashAlert

©CrashAlert

CrashAlert is currently in the prototype stage, but statistics into collision episodes, where the person has been busy looking at a device have doubled since 2008, as a US study in the Journal of Safety Research showed. In 2008, there was a two-fold increase in the number of ‘eyes-busy’ related accidents compared to the previous year.

And when you take into consideration the numbers involving car fatalities, where the pedestrian failed to look properly, the statistics become more serious, as this is a major factor reported in 59% of car accidents, where there was a fatality or injury to a pedestrian.

Kevin Clinton, head of road safety at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) said: “People should take care not to be dangerously distracted, whether by mobile phones, listening to music or being caught up in conversations with other people. Being able to use all of your senses is important when interacting with traffic.”

But shouldn’t we be able to focus on walking and talking or texting and be aware of our surrounding at the same time? The head of the Brain and Cognition Lab at Oxford University, Prof Kia Nobre, doesn’t think so, as tests have shown that the brain can only consciously pay attention to around three things at once.

The obvious solution therefore is for people to stop looking at their phones when they are walking, and even the CrashAlert inventor – Hincapié-Ramos agrees: “We should encourage people to text less while they’re walking because it isolates them from their environment. However people are doing it and there are situations where you have to do it. It’s for situations like this that CrashAlert can have a positive impact.”

But it isn’t all our fault, as Dr Joe Marshall, who specialises in Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Nottingham, says that mobile phones are not necessarily manufactured to be used whilst you are mobile: “The problem with mobile technology is that it’s not designed to be used while you’re actually mobile. It involves you stopping, looking at a screen and tapping away.”

Dr Marshall thinks that mobile phone companies should look to redesigning phones to make them more user friendly when you are out and about.

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