Remember the last time you were in a confined space, trapped in your seat, hungry or thirsty and unable to move for hours. What sounds like a form of imprisonment is a typical experience in most vehicles. The transport industry is a highly suitable candidate to explore reducing the health footprint, starting even with developed countries. Changes targeting convenience are in fact also about improving health and saving lives.
1. An emergency stop. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed a Decade of Action for Road Safety. UN Sustainable Development Goal target 3.6 states: «By 2020 halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents». That goal was not met, and there was hardly any progress.
Automatic emergency braking (AEB) may be the most useful car safety feature. A study by the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety involving police-reported crashes found that cars equipped with AEB crash into other vehicles 50% less frequently. Most car manufacturers have committed to equipping their cars with AEB (inter alia, thanks to the efforts of Consumer Reports), but not all are in a rush. The cost of delayed installation of these and other crash-prevention technologies: in the US alone, 20,000 deaths annually.
2. Stop the fall. Which of us has not lost telephones, keys, food or anything else in the gaps on either side of our seat? For passengers in cars and airplanes, it’s an inconvenience. For drivers, it’s a matter of life and death. A significant number of traffic accidents (between 10% and 80%, depending on the reports) is caused by driver distraction. Technology to prevent «stuff» from falling into these crevices has been in existence for many years already: Drop Stop and similar devices can be acquired for under $25. Unlike AEB, this is cheap and simple technology. Yet the feature is missing even in the top auto brands and in airline business classes.
3. 20 years later: where do I put my phone? Aliens landing on Earth would not be able to tell from current vehicle design that mobile phones have been around for decades. How many automakers and airlines offer a seat where your handheld device rests in an accessible place, without falling and distracting you? The solution could be as simple as sewing a small pocket in an adjacent door or the seat in front of you. How many vehicles anticipate putting away glasses where they are not scratched by the phone or keys? Or a convenient place to keep a laptop and documents to enable actually doing «business» on the plane — something that, ironically, even «business class» is not designed for? Even low-tech design solutions can resolve these inconveniences, and for the drivers also reduce the risk of an accident.
4. Don’t sit on it. We sit at the computer all day, then sit in cars and airplanes to travel elsewhere to sit again. Does it have to be that way? A massive study by UK researchers on the dangers of extended periods of sitting, conducted on almost a million people, determined that those who sat the most experienced: (i) a 112% increase in diabetes, (ii) a 147% increase in cardiovascular events, including a 90% greater chance of dying from them, and (iii) a 49% increase in mortality overall. Extensive sitting also results in chronic pain. Dr. Steven Atlas of Harvard Medical School observes that back pain is often derived from sitting due to the position of the vertebrae and pinching of nerves: the pressure on the disks is lowest when lying down, and is worse when sitting than when standing.
Cars could be equipped with better mechanisms to stretch and change body position, at least for passengers until driverless cars become standard, and even more so in the cars of the future. Even in luxury car brands, such a «luxury», or rather necessity, is uncommon. Similarly, airlines could start experimenting with bold innovations to allow lying flat on the plane even outside business class: for example, bunk benches perpendicular to the alleys. Such solutions will require reimagining aircraft interior design, ticketing models and perhaps even related regulations, but may result in better passenger access to alleys and more passengers per square meter, thus improving not only health, but also safety and profitability.
5. Exercise on the move. Transport does not have to be a place to waste time and get weaker by sitting. For passengers, transport provides an untapped opportunity to benefit their health through elementary resistance exercise devices. On airplanes, they could even be made available for a fee.
6. The light effect. On airplanes, has the «mood lighting» in the new models fixed all the lighting issues? Traditionally, light either blinds passengers from the cabin or the screen that stubbornly keeps turning itself back on, or is too weak to read by. But lighting that is too bright or too dim, especially outside one’s normal circadian rhythm, has physical and mental consequences, including: eye strain, headaches, stress, mental and cardiovascular disorders. Mood lighting and even artificial sunrises and sunsets have become standard on some airlines. But the truly necessary lighting feature that is rarely optimized is far from fancy: it is simply a more adequate personal light with a dimmer.
7. There is no bad weather? Modern cars, at least the top brands, have solved temperature control. But airlines have not. Everyone realizes that it is hard to rest when it’s too cold or too hot. Not everybody may know that the wrong temperature also directly affects our productivity. One study showed that a decrease of just a few degrees below comfort level reduces work speed and increases error rate by 15%. But our internal thermostats differ. Customizable temperature or air flow control solutions, even in the form of old-fashioned individual vents, may increase passengers’ ability to work or to rest.
8. When will we get there? Travelers have an irresistible desire to constantly know two things — what time it is and when we will get there. A driver or a pilot usually has this information handy. Passengers, however, must lean over, squint, fish in their pockets for devices, turn on offensively bright screens, or else constantly annoy the driver by these two questions. This matter is perhaps small, but so is the cost of fixing it. Displaying this information to be clearly visible to all would be appreciated by both drivers and passengers.
9. Omnia mea mecum porto («All that is mine I carry with me»). Oprah Winfrey, a famous American talk show host, asked Isis Medina, a New York–based chiropractor who specializes in spinal alignment, to publicly recommend bags that will not hurt your back. Transportation companies could participate in solving this underappreciated problem, for example by adding places for bags on ramps and holding posts in buses, or devising mechanisms to lift carry-ons to overhead bins.
10. A thirst for change. A frustrating aspect of travel is the inability to drink water when needed. The negative effects of dehydration are well-known, and are especially grave in airplanes. The quaint sixties-era concept of a flight attendant bringing water on a tray is outdated. Passengers should have independent access to water and healthful snacks through dispensers or compact vending machines, even if there are only one or two of them on the aircraft.
Do consumers want to pay for their health and lives? Some companies do not even ask, they just make drivers and passengers safer. BelkaCar, one of Russia’s largest carsharing companies, started e-mailing drivers a map showing their traffic violations, together with a message, «We worry about you, drive more safely». Just that reduced traffic accidents by 20%. Volvo and Tesla made automatic emergency braking standard years ago, without asking customers to price their lives.
Some of these measures may increase profitability in addition to health and others «only health», at least in the short run. In all cases, however, minding the health footprint means both saving health and lives today and being at the forefront in designing the transport of tomorrow.