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Driving Hazard

25 Feb 11
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I wish I had been quicker with the camera.

I was in Malawi last year, driving in the western part of the country near the town of Chipata and enjoying a beautiful blue-sky day, when we passed a bicyclist heading in the other direction. It was an old one-speed bike, commonly used in the developing world – a bit like the Schwinn Pee Wee Herman rode, actually, except without the extra gee-gaws and streamers on the handlebars. They are cheap to make and almost indestructible, so they make for reliable transportation.

But it wasn’t the bike that had attracted my attention – it was the guy on it, who was busily texting while pedaling alongside fast-moving cars.

Cellphones are literally everywhere in the developing world. They got there by what is known as leapfrogging technology. Less wealthy countries with widespread populations could generally not afford the costs of stringing hundreds of miles of land lines for telephone service, so for years many people simply went without phones (and often electricity, for the same reason).

Cellphones changed all that. Long telephone lines were no longer needed, and businesses could make money putting up cell towers. So old-fashioned phones were leaped over, for the newer technology much of the world calls handphones, rather than cellphones.

Actually making calls can be expensive, but texting is relatively cheap – a few cents for several messages. So people mostly use their handphones to text – about everything. In Jakarta a few years ago I was scolded for leaving a voice message rather than sending a text. I felt so old-fashioned.

I’ve found no studies on the effects of texting while driving, or riding a bike for that matter, in the developing world. Studies in the U.S. though indicate that you are more than 20 times as likely to be in an accident if you are texting. So I would be interested to see if accidents have climbed here, where even kids text from the back of their parents’ motorcycle (and parents text while giving their kids a ride, like what is happening in the picture).

In the meantime, be sure to watch this video about the hazards of driving while texting. Thanks to Tim for pointing the video out.

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