It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane

Well I got some nice feedback on my piece a few days ago about how I could effectively make an enormous television camera disappear, so I thought I’d follow up on the subject a bit.

In English there are some technical terms for all of this. Specifically “not seeing” an enormous television camera is inattentional blindness. As Wikipedia pithily puts it:

Our attention cannot be focused on everything, and therefore, we all experience inattentional blindness. Sometimes, people falsely believe that they do not experience inattentional blindness.

The whole “magic trick” with the “disappearing” camera was something I was doing on purpose but it has some interesting ramifications in more common everyday experiences, one of which is key to Romania especially in contrast to America.

First though, awareness itself is generally classified into “top down” (endogenous) or “bottom up” (exogenous)*. The “top down” is essentially whatever you will yourself to notice. If you go to your window and consciously watch someone walking down the street, that is “top down” awareness (sometimes called “executive” awareness). It’s more or less what you decide to pay attention to.

“Bottom up” awareness is when something in your environment “catches” your attention. A very typical example of this would be the sound of your telephone ringing. One minute you’re paying attention to something deliberately, like reading this blog (top down) and then your phone rings, which “catches” your attention (bottom up).

In the example of me making the TV camera disappear, I was actually manipulating both of these kinds of attention. By waving my hand, I was triggering the person’s “bottom up” attention as they swiveled their eyes to track my hand as it “caught” their attention. Secondly, I was engaging in conversation with them, thus triggering their “top down” attention as they were focusing in on what I was saying. Since there are always a million things going on in our environment, it’s impossible to pay attention to all of it, so both the waving of the hand (bottom up) and engaging in conversation (top down) essentially nullified the fact that an enormous camera was pointed in their direction. As I said, although no playing cards or rabbits were involved, this is essentially the same as any “magic trick” you’ve ever seen.

Manipulating people’s attention and how to do this gets a lot of my attention because I find the whole subject fascinating. And as I mentioned above, there’s a clear case of where attention is different in Romania than it is in America.

In my earliest visits to Romania, I spent a lot of time riding around in people’s cars, as I’ve written about before. And therefore I spent a lot of time observing the situation on Romania’s roads, a subject that fascinates both Romanians and visitors today. It’s generally described as “chaotic” or “crazy” (see episode 2 of my documentary) or “terrible”. Roads in Romania are fraught with obstacles from potholes, poorly marked detours or obstructions, people in the roadway, animals in the roadway, horse-drawn carts, bicycles and erratic (motor vehicle) drivers and about a million other things that prevent smooth and easy driving.

America is almost the opposite, with thousands of kilometers of smooth, well-marked roadways with very few obstacles. It is, in large part, what many Romanians (and often visitors to Romania as well) dream of for this country. And yet in terms of safety, I’d argue that driving in Romania is far safer than it is in America. And I’m not the only one to say that.

I used to work at a couple of hospitals (doing data processing, not anything medical) and I can tell you from first-hand experience that there are two types of reasons why people come there for treatment. One is “internal medicine”, which means that you’re sick in some way, whether a bad cold or the flu or else something more serious like diabetes or cancer. The second is “trauma”, which means you were fine one moment and then something external happened, like you cut yourself with a knife, fell out of a tree or something else that caused you harm.

Without question, the number one cause of “trauma” for people coming into the hospitals in America was motor vehicle crashes of some kind. Roughly 36,000 people die from motor vehicle crashes in America every year and hundreds of thousands of people are injured. By far the most dangerous thing you can do on an everyday basis in America is get into a car and go somewhere. Nothing else even compares. And mind you, this is in a country with very well-marked highways and modern, safe cars and everything else. In fact, it is the leading cause of death amongst young people in the United States.

I would argue, however, that a lot of those crashes in America come because people fail to pay attention. They swerve into cars (and motorcycles, especially) they literally don’t see because their attention is elsewhere. They cross through intersections without being aware of traffic from the other streets, etc.

I have a wonderful book on my shelf called “Traffic” by Tom Vanderbilt, which goes into great detail on these kinds of issues (his blog is here). Since motor vehicle crashes are so deadly and injurious to people (after all, it’s tons of metal slamming into things at high speed, which is not good for puny humans), how can you make driving safer?

One of his answers, especially for cities, is the “roundabout” or the traffic circle (Rom: giratoriu) instead of using the traffic light (Rom: semafor) system of green lights telling you to go and red lights telling you to stop. Why? When you boil it down, it’s because a traffic circle requires you to pay attention. When you’re going by what the light “tells you”, you’re focused on the light and not (as much) on cars who might be disobeying the light. But when you’re entering a circle, by definition, you have to look out for other cars and thusly avoid striking them.

As my old nemesis The Economist pointed out this week, not only are traffic circles safer (37% safer, according to them) but they also move traffic through an intersection much more quickly than using traffic lights. Tom Vanderbilt also concurs that traffic circles are safer although in America there are very few traffic circles while in Romania (and the rest of Europe) they are far more common.

I’d also argue that all of the unexpected features of driving in Romania, from the potholes to the horse-drawn carts to animals in the road also cause drivers pay more attention to roads here versus driving on more orderly roadways in other countries. Of course this means driving in Romania is more stressful, which people don’t like, but I say that this stress is actually keeping people safer.

But is this true? Well it’s hard to say because right now there is a lack of comparable statistics with which to compare Romania with America. There is a number of deaths from automobile crashes, which is roughly the same as America in terms of percentage. But this could be explained by the use of older (and less safe) vehicles, not to mention crashes involving horse-drawn vehicles (even less safe). I did find this graph however, listing deaths, “serious” injuries and total crashes. You’ll note right away that according to this data, 91% of all crashes involve at least serious injury.

Clearly it’s hard to find data to compare with American statistics because some crashes must cause no injuries or only minor injuries. But even taking the total number of crashes (9,225) in 2010 and comparing it to the population that year (20,298,580) we get 0.004% of the population was involved in a crash.

Meanwhile in America in 2009 (PDF) there were 10.8 million motor vehicle crashes from a population of 305,539,237 which means 3.5% of the population was involved in a motor vehicle crash, a significantly larger number. In other words, if Romania had the same rate of motor vehicle collisions as America, there would be 710,000 car crashes every year!

Yes, I realize fatalities (in terms of percentage) are quite high in Romania. As I said, this is probably due to older-model vehicles (Dacias and Trabants, etc) lacking safety equipment (like air bags) and horse-drawn vehicles. It may also be due to lack of roadway safety such as holes destroying tires and lack of guard rails and the like. A crash in Romania is just as likely to kill you as in America but there are far fewer crashes in Romania than there are in America. God knows I’ve personally been involved in a million “almost” crashes myself and it’s a hair-raising experience.

I would argue that the fact that driving here is so stressful, that you do have to go through villages and towns, that you have to watch out for animals and carts and people standing in the road and poorly marked construction work and all of the other things people complain about that force people to engage their top-down attention and thus make driving much, much safer here. In fact, motor vehicle accidents don’t even make the top 10 list of causes of death in Romania.

Now are you still as enthusiastic about all that development?

* = English speakers love to use Greek words for medical (in this case neurological) terminology. Endogenous means “generated from inside” – endo + genesis (top-down) and exogenous means “generated from the outside” – exo + genesis (bottom up).

This love of making fancy words from Greek roots is why we have telephones (remote + sound) to communicate instead of “fartalkers” LOL although hilariously, television is a combination of both Greek (tele – remote) and Latin (video – to see). If we stuck to pure Greek we’d all be watching Cronica Carcotasilor on teleblepsions :)