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Digital Distraction


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Pushing off from the summit, a skier settles into his rhythm with a few turns, then speaks into a headset built into his helmet: Check voicemail…

(Beep)…I think we ought to sell Intel and buy Sun Micro, let me know…

Oops, almost caught an edge…

Dial Acme Investments…John, buy Sun and get back to me…hang up…

Picking up speed, he rounds a bend to the right when his cell phone bleats…

Congratulations, sir. You’ve been preapproved for our Tita-nium Cash Card!…hang up…

Ahead is that little ridge just perfect for some TWA (teeny-weeny air). Through the headset he hears:

You’ve got mail…Dear B: Three large gentlemen from a collection agency stopped by the office. I told them you weren’t here, but they said that’s OK because they know where you live. Just thought you should know. Have fun skiing.

Far-fetched scenario? Not altogether. With hand-operated cell phones and two-way radios, most skiers have the sense to wait until they’re on the chairlift to use them. But with hands-free, voice-activated devices now hitting the shelves, the temptation to use them on the slopes might lure even the saner among us. This digital distraction means that the skier speeding up behind you may be in control-or he may be checking the IBM stock prices, while you’re not even a blip on his radar.

Some contend that the danger of using a cell phone on the slopes is similar to what motorists face. “With skiing, there is an appropriate speed and space in which to operate,” says Jim Felton, communications director at Colorado’s Breckenridge Ski Resort. “You need all your faculties in tune to what you’re doing. No one in a car would think of passing on the crest of a hill with a double yellow line; skiers need to exercise that same caution.”

While it’s doubtful that digital-related slope accidents will ever match what happens on the highways (experts estimate that about one out of every two auto crashes occurs because motorists are distracted by cell phones, stereos, hand-held computers or other devices inside their vehicles) some parallels can be drawn. Paul Green, a senior research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, and a skier himself, sees a correlation between his auto-safety findings and how they might apply to skiing. Green observes that when drivers are distracted they tend to swerve and change speeds. Worse yet is a lack of awareness. “Drivers will go through a stop sign and plow into the side of another vehicle,” he says. “In many cases the driver at fault claims he never saw the stop sign. In fact, he just wasn’t paying attention.” Green theorizes that the same situations could happen in skiing and that the level of distraction would change with the level of the skier, meaning it would take less to distract a poor skier than an expert.

The Latest And Greatest
This winter, digital devices will be easier than ever for skiers to use on the slopes. The popular Motorola Talkabout, for example, leaps beyond simple two-way radio status with its hands-free, voice-activated T6320, which has an eavesdropper scrambler, eight weather channels, FM radio, alarm clock, stopwatch, altimeter, barometer, thermometer and compass-all for $160.

Nextel’s i85s phone ($199) is a virtual office in a headset. It allows you to dial a number by just saying a name, be in two-way radio “direct connect,” check voicemail and pager messages, access the Web, create Java applications for use in the phone, and have your email transformed into voice mode and read to you.

Also, as batteries and components get smaller, it’s easy to envision a day when ski helmets come “digital ready.” NFL teams use helmets equipped with speakers so plays can be radioed from the bench to the quarterback, and NASCAR crews have as many as 30 radio headsets communicating at the same time. Some ski instructors already use headsets to better communicate with their students. Why not create a ski helmet with a headset built in?

“Problems with snow, moisture, cold temperatures and batteries would all have to be dealt with, and ski-helmet manufacturers are not in that business,” says Roger C. Williamson, a team manager for Boeri ski helmets who describes himself as an executive ski bum. “Besides, if someone needs to be that connected, maybe they should transact their business under different circumstances.”

A Place For Everything
Resorts are doing their part to keep the slopes safe by giving business-minded skiers alternatives to carrying their own devices. The Sprint Communications Center at the top of Vail’s Eagle Bahn Gondola is a good example, offering six computers, T-1 Internet access, video conferencing, up-to-the-minute stock quotes, telephones, faxes and four private offices. At Stowe, Vt., skiers can slide into the Octagon Web Cafe next to the FourRunner Quad atop Mt. Mansfield, where they can use computer terminals to check email. And just to make the folks back at the office jealous, they can send a Stowe electronic postcard saying, “Wish you were here.” Meanwhile, skiers shouldn’t count on chairlifts for an escape from media-it may not be long before you can watch TV or listen to the radio as you’re whisked up the mountain.

Staying ahead of the game will be a challenge for both resorts and skiers. On the horizon is “Internet 2,” with data transfers so fast that gurus are touting it as “tele-immersion.” (It takes 174 hours to download the movie The Matrix using a 56K dial-up modem, and 6 1/2 hours over a T-1 line; on Internet 2, it takes 30 seconds.) Also on deck: “3G,” Third Generation wideband mobile services (we’re now somewhere between 1G and 2G) that promise instant anytime-anywhere access to information, communication and entertainment. All this is rushing headlong down a ski trail toward you. The only protection right now seems to be trust in your fellow skiers. Just hope that the guy behind you isn’t betting on the Giants game…

Health Hit Cell-phone use while driving quadruples your accident risk, making it nearly as risky as driving drunk.
-New England Journal of Medicine