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If smartphones are so smart, why don't they tell drivers to watch the road?

OPINION: Some hospitals are now treating smart phone usage as a potentially dangerous addictive behavior and have started screening staff. People who disagree with that are clearly not paying attention, and maybe not even when they're driving. istockphoto

Finally, someone has started checking for what might be one of the most dangerous addictions of our time: the so-called smartphone.

Some hospitals, according to Dr. Peter Papadakos, a professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, have begun screening for staff who pay too much attention to that handy little communication device in their pocket.

Think about it: Would you want your surgeon busily texting away with friends or keeping up with his online stock trading when he's supposed to be focused on your surgery?

"We have made strides to at least address this issue of addiction with health care workers,'' Papadakos writes in Pharmacy Practices News. "One of the tools that has become popular during these educational programs is the University of Rochester Modified CAGE Questions. CAGE is a highly validated survey of alcohol addiction, which has been modified and replaces drinks with personal electronic devices (PEDs). This survey self-validates to the participant his or her own shortcomings with PEDs and is a springboard to starting a dialogue and correction of behavior in the professional environment. Organized medicine has thus started to self-correct and educate its practitioners at all levels of technical staff."

Some will, of course, scoff at the very idea of smartphone addiction. They have obviously been going through life with their eyes wide shut.

Look around. How many times a day does it happen when you're in a meeting with people, or even a conversation, that eyes and attention divert to a small screen?

It happens regularly. It's irksome.

But if you really want a scare, watch the motorists around you on the roads of Alaska -- if you aren't already distracted by whatever is going on in that motor vehicle that has by federal regulation been made almost as safe, in some ways arguably safer, than an armored personnel carrier.

It's so safe few seem to worry about paying attention while driving anymore. Why should they? The odds of being seriously injured in a traffic accident have become very small. They are so small the state has been forced to pass a law against drivers texting because so many now think it safe to drive without paying attention to the road.

There is good reason for the law banning texting while driving.

At least one vulnerable road user has already been killed by a texting driver in this state. Twenty-eight-year-old Hubert Tunuchuk from the village of Chefornak in far western Alaska was a visitor to the big city when Ashley Bashore of Anchorage ran over him on Easter 2011.

Tunuchuk died. Bayshore is now serving 18 months in jail for causing his death. The sentence came after a judge rejected the first plea deal to let her off with a minimal sentence.

That there aren't more dead like Tunuchuk is something of a miracle.

If you have doubts, get out of that car or truck, slow down to the speed of a walker or cyclist in the city of Anchorage, and watch the drivers around you.

Some days, it seems, a third to a half of them have their heads down looking at their smartphone, which doesn't appear to be that smart. If it was, it would be shouting at them: "Watch the road you fool! Don't look at me!''

Or better yet, hitting them with an electric shock every time they took their eyes off the pavement ahead for more than a couple seconds. Maybe someone can write an app for that.

It would seem a great idea because it is clear a whole bunch of Alaskans, indeed a whole bunch of Americans, can't help but look at that phone. They can't stop themselves from looking at it even when they know the act is impolite, irresponsible or even dangerous. They can't even stop when they know the act is illegal.

That's a textbook definition of addiction.

The question is: What does society do about it?

To buy a bottle of booze in Anchorage, you now have to go through the ritual of digging your driver's license out so the seller can make sure the ID doesn't have a red stripe indicating a judge has decided you shouldn't be drinking. Reportedly fewer than 500 people in the municipality have this red stripe, and yet tens of thousands of Anchorage residents obviously over the age of 21 have to go through an inconvenience that has been shown to accomplish nothing, instead of just swiping their credit card when they buy alcohol.

To buy a smartphone you have to do exactly what?

There aren't even any restrictions on the sale of smartphones to teenage drivers who are known to be so easily distracted that the state passed a limit on who can be in the car with them. New teen drivers operate on a "provisional license'' for six months or age 18, whichever comes first, that stipulates, according to the Department of Public Safety, that "you may NOT carry passengers under the age of 21, except siblings."

But don't worry about their lack of social contacts during this provisional period. They can surely use their smartphone to stay in constant contact with all their friends.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.