Posts Tagged 'distraction'

Sensory overload

I saw a vexing thing as I rode along the paved Bolin Creek Greenway in Chapel Hill today. What I saw I have ambivalent feelings about – a man who appeared to be blind led by his service dog, with the tell-tale Apple-white cords dangling from his ears.

Most of the greenway users I observe are joggers and walkers, and lots of people walking dogs. And, most of those folks that are out there solo have some sort of device to their ears, like a cell phone or ipods. Since it’s basically a recreational space with a lot of users, I take it easy on the bike rather than treat the path like a closed race course. I came from behind the man with the service dog and slowed to his pace. As I got closer, the man suddenly spooked and pulled at his dog, then settled down. I waited to pass slowly until I could be sure the way around him was clear. That’s when I confirmed that yes, he was blind, and yes, he had ipod buds in his ears.

On the one hand, I have to say that it’s perfectly acceptable that a visually-impaired person would partake of the same pleasures and activities as anyone on the path – in this case a pleasant stroll with his dog along a car-free path by a stream, whilst listening to favorite music, news, or comment.

On the other hand, the more I think about it, the more I’m opposed to blocking out any of my senses – hearing, sight, metal focus – while I’m out there ambulating and locomoting on streets and paths. I wrote about my feelings about using devices like cell phones and ipods while driving and biking a while back. I admitted that I’d tried biking with headphones for a while and realized that was pretty dangerous. And, I confessed to running or dog-walking while listening to music. As I’m exposed to more miles traveled via bike, foot, or car, (and hear about more studies and news stories) I’m convinced that I need all available senses at my disposal.

The winter days and the proximity of a gym have given me a chance to experiment with one alternative to running outside along paths or streets while listening to music – running while listening to music on the treadmill. Treadmills pose their own risks I discovered. If I think about it too hard, staying balanced on the moving walkway seems fairly improbable, but perhaps only as improbable as staying within the lines on the pavement while driving – don’t think about it too much and you’ll be fine.

I found that the danger on the treadmill in fact lies, yes, with the ipod. There I am, clicking through my podcasts, just settling into the comforting nasal tones of Ira Glass’s sensitive observations when the ipod slips from my hand, hits the treadmill track and is shot backward from the apparatus. I flail my arms in an attempt to snatch it back like a jedi, but forget to coordinate the pace of my legs with the pace of the moving belt below me. I jump, pirouette, spin, end up running backwards a few steps while still on the treadmill before I, too, am spewed off the end.

At least all I tumbled onto was a padded mat, rather than into the path of a car. Alas, the treadmill is so boring and running is so painful that I’m still willing to risk the twisted ankle by mixing the personal running device with the personal listening device.



The stoker shoots last Saturdays ride.

The stoker shoots last Saturday's ride.

I did not have the pleasure of tandem commuting today, however I did ride the single bike and have the opportunity to face a more and more common sight on the road – a distracted driver headed straight toward me in my lane. I deliberately chose to ride up one of the steeper hills in Carrboro through a quiet neighborhood in order to avoid the worst of 5pm college town traffic. I met just one car on the street, and it was coming right at me. He corrected his course just before I needed to veer away, but he passed by close enough that I could see what was up – he had just finished dialing his cell phone and was bringing it up to his ear. I gave him the raised-arm open-palmed what-are-you-thinking salute, and got a negligent wave in return.

There’s no need to repeat all of the research that’s been in the media lately, but suffice to say, we cyclists have to watch out for them, because they’re not looking out for us. The roadways were unsafe for lots of other reasons before all of these devices increased the amount of distractions to drivers. There’s just that much more riding on our own defensive awareness now.

As non-motorized road-users, we also need to evaluate our own device use. All of us: bikers, runners, pedestrians. A road user is a road user, we’re in the same space, and we can little afford to be distracted. As among drivers, more and more complaints are being raised about cyclists on cell phones weaving across the bike lane, and runners and cyclists oblivious to road noise because of the headphones in their ears. Often, that road noise can convey some pretty essential information, like there’s a bus on your left that’s just not going to stop, or there’s a car crash currently happening next you, as I’ve witnessed while cycling on the Lake Shore bike path where it parallels Lake Shore Drive in Chicago some 20 feet away. Some cities are thinking about creating ordinances to ban use of some of these devices while walking or riding on city streets. Maybe some already have. (I guess it’s not a new issue -found this article from 1982).

I see a lot of my friends heading out for long bike rides on the bucolic rolling hills of the North Carolina farmland with the little white cords dangling from their helmet straps. Sometimes even while we’re riding together. Does this make the ride more interesting? Does it take your mind off the pain, or help keep you in rhythm?

I’m not a pill enough to comment on it to them, but maybe I will start. I tried riding with my ipod a couple times on a bike path, even rode years ago with a big old discman once or twice stuffed into a rear jersey pocket of a cycling shirt. But I never liked it. Mainly because I had to have the volume cranked to the max in order to hear past the whoosh of the wind, and I thought it best to save what remains of my ear drums for live rock shows. Maybe being able to hear the road conditions has saved my neck once or twice, too.

The question for tandem riders is, What about the stoker? It’s important for us to be able to communicate about road conditions and navigation. But it seems like it would be really helpful if the stoker could “multi-task” back there, snapping digital pictures over my shoulder (note the fine photography at the beginning of this post) ,taking cell calls from my soon-to-be in-laws,  checking a map on a wireless device. Maybe even tune out my rambling by ducking her ears into headphones.