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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .
I’m writing this column early in July, but already I seem to have fallen into a silly-season mood – reinforced by my having come across a Wikipedia page headed Silly season, which informed me that in many languages, the coming couple of months translate as “cucumber time”. Apparently this phrase was even used in English, in the 1800s, to denote the slow season for tailors. Don’t ask me why!
The main reason I’ve lost my usual serious grip on matters is that I have been renewing my driving licence. I should explain that I last had to do this three years ago, as I approached the age of 70. Both then and now, I was sent a printed form which was accompanied by the message: “Save time, do it online.” So I did (do it online, I mean, not save time, certainly not that). In 2013, I kept a note of the experience as I went along, but didn’t have the space here then to tell you the story.
These were the questions (on successive webpages) that sent me into a spin: Do you have any medical conditions not previously notified? No, since I had already told DVLA about my glaucoma. Tick any conditions below that you suffer from. Because of the glaucoma, I ticked Reduced Visual Field. The next page said: We need to investigate this condition of yours. Oh no you don’t, I thought, and so I went back to untick RVF. But the next page now said: Confirm that you have none of the conditions that were listed. Of course I couldn’t, so I went back and ticked RVF again. The final page said: We note that Reduced Visual Field is a condition you haven’t told us about. But this wasn’t true, so I went back to untick RVF...
I complained to DVLA at the time about this ‘Catch 70’, though to my relief they still sent me the new licence. Anyway, now for this year’s exercise: as in 2013, the printed form looked fearsome, though at least it didn’t appear to be self-contradictory like the previous web version. So why did I again choose the online method?
At first I thought they had taken note of my previous comments and straightened out the questions, but in reality the twist had merely been refined: Tick any conditions below that you suffer from but haven’t notified us about. None – but then the next page said: Confirm that you have none of the conditions that were listed. Well, I couldn’t of course. But I wasn’t allowed to proceed further until I did! And finally I was obliged to agree that I understood it was a criminal offence to make a false declaration in order to obtain a licence. From then on, I was driving with fingers crossed...
Relief again: the licence arrived within a few days. But I suppose they might still catch up with me at any time, over the false declaration. And meanwhile, I discovered only just in time before setting off for a holiday in Ireland that because DVLA no longer issue the ‘paper counterpart’ to the driving-licence card, I risked being refused the hire of a car if I didn’t do the following: go to www.gov.uk/view-driving-licence, enter my licence number, and obtain a ‘check code’ that the hire people could use (on the same website, when I turned up) to satisfy themselves that my licence was clean. Though in the event, needless to say, it wasn’t asked for! But what a palaver.
Here next is the latest news from Google on the development of their driverless/autonomous/self-driving cars: these autos (which is my simple name for them – manufacturers and media, please copy) are being programmed to look out for cyclists and, in particular, their hand-signals. The system will even remember detecting a brief signal and be ready for a manoeuvre from the rider some time later. And extraordinarily, autos will be able to recognize “thousands of variations” of bikes including tandems and unicycles.
Hang on, when did you last see a cyclist give any sort of signal? (Excluding my cycling readership, I should emphasize.) Though I do so understand why the habit has disappeared: the risk of dropping one’s mobile phone is just too great. Also, when did you last meet a unicycle wobbling along the road towards you? As for recognizing thousands of bicycles, what are Google talking about? Have they programmed in each little design variation from every manufacturer? I think they should concentrate on teaching their autos how to behave at mini-roundabouts, which is surely going to be a much bigger problem!
(Incidentally, the other day I observed a cyclist, admittedly on a quiet road, in the act of taking off his sweater while holding a rucksack in whichever hand was free at the time, all the while proceeding at a fair speed with surprisingly good balance. Of course he would have found it difficult to take avoiding action if someone had stepped in front of him. And I do wonder what a Google auto would have made of this apparition...)
Last month’s [Thames Valley Group] newsletter mentioned a ‘distractions video’ produced by the iAM (formerly IAM). I found this online and took a look: it’s a short and amusing demonstration of how your attention can easily be diverted from the road ahead by different things – your child, your dog or your phone. It was filmed not on the road (I’m glad to say) but in a driving simulator, one with a vivid wrap-around screen, designed to encourage you to imagine that you’re genuinely driving at high speed through complex terrain.
I haven’t experienced a simulator myself, so I’m curious to know how realistic they are. I’ve read that the best (and no doubt most costly) of them apply forces and tilt to the driving-seat to reproduce the sensations of cornering, braking, acceleration and road vibration. But when these are absent, say, how reliable will be the results of serious investigations of motorists’ behaviour using driving simulators?
This question has itself been investigated! The answer, not surprisingly, is that there are significant differences between sitting in a simulator and driving along a real road. But with the latter, it’s difficult to carry out many types of study, especially those requiring close control and monitoring of the driver: the next best thing would be setting up a planned drive on a test track, but even that often can’t be done.
What I’m really getting round to is a result (from a simulator) that I reported here two years ago, namely that when cruise control was switched on, drivers exhibited a fall in general attentiveness – showing up in poorer reaction time, line-holding and overtaking-judgment. The effects worsened as the (simulated) 120 km journey continued, and a rising level of tiredness was also reported.
I’ve since found two other investigations that reached similar conclusions, except that one of them probed further and found a difference between ‘safe’ drivers and risk-takers: the latter were more affected (as described above) than the others, when cruise control was on. Well, maybe so, though anyway we can’t be certain that some of the deterioration in attention wasn’t just a side-effect of being tested in a simulator for more than an hour! But I am willing to believe that it occurs on the road too, when anyone engages cruise control and feels that they can relax. And so I’ve not touched that switch for two years.
Should you avoid it too? That’s up to you – but I can’t help thinking that ignoring cruise control might make your holiday journey just a bit safer...
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