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11 Things That Make You a Bad Driver

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You might have passed your driving test with flying colors and never text while driving, but it turns out there are a lot more bizarre things that can affect how dangerous you are on the road.

1. Singing

Music is important when you are driving. You’d be hard pressed to find a car that didn’t at least come with a basic radio and lots of people will spend thousands of dollars making sure they have the best aftermarket stereo systems available. But listening to music contributes to hundreds of car accidents every year. People fiddling with the radio will look away from the road. Even the type of music you listen to can affect your driving; high tempo music, like techno, makes you twice as likely to go through a red light, for instance. But possibly the worst thing to do is sing along to your favorite tunes. Even when singing a song you know by heart, your brain has to work to remember the melody and the words. This increases the workload on your brain and in turn makes it harder to react to dangerous situations when driving. So next time you are out for a drive, maybe leave the ballads to Beyoncé and concentrate on the road.

2. Having a Cold

Your health can have an obvious effect on how well you drive. After all, if you aren’t getting enough sleep, or are in chronic pain, or seriously ill, you are going to react slower to danger. But it doesn’t have to be some major health issue that makes you a worse driver. A 2012 study found that even a slight cold is enough to make driving a car more dangerous. In a driver simulation, researchers found that people with a cold are more easily distracted while driving, have slower reaction times and are more likely to follow the car in front too closely. So next time your boss says that a cold isn’t a good enough reason to miss work, tell her you are just being a responsible driver by staying home.

3. Driving the Same Route All the Time

Getting complacent is one of the worst things you can do if you hope to make it to the end of your drive alive. When completing familiar tasks our brain stops trying as hard, and according to a 2010 study, this includes when we are driving a route we know by heart. So you are actually more likely to do something stupid and get in an accident on the way to work than you are taking a road trip. When following a new route your brain stays engaged and allows you to react to a child stepping into the road or a car braking suddenly.

4. Billboards

A racy billboard for Wonderbra was once removed from Britain’s roadways when the number of car accidents around it went up. But it’s not just bra-clad supermodels that directly affect how well you drive. The advertisements on the side of highways are all fighting to get your attention, and you will speed up or slow down according to what kind emotion they evoke in you. A study found that billboards that reference money, fame, or sex will make a driver speed up. Negative emotions, triggered by billboard reminders of abuse, prison, or war, caused drivers to slow down. But they were also more likely to drift out of their lane after seeing one, meaning there is really no way to win when advertisers are fighting with traffic for your attention.

5. Being a Libra

Insurance companies don’t really take your star sign into consideration when deciding what to charge you for coverage. So when one company did a study to find out what zodiac sign had the worst drivers, it started as a joke—but the results indicated an overwhelming pattern. Libras get in the most accidents by far, followed by Aquarius and Aries. But Pisces receive the most tickets. Overall, Geminis win safest drivers, with the least accidents and tickets. So next time you hop in a cab be sure to ask the driver his sign.

6. Living in D.C.

According to a huge study by Allstate, the average American gets in a car accident once every 10 years. But where you live can drastically change your collision frequency. Obviously, the bigger the city you live in the more cars, and the greater the chance of getting in an accident. But while San Francisco (6.4 years between accidents), Philadelphia (6.2), and Baltimore (5.3) all have worse odds than average, no one comes close to Washington, D.C., where stressed-out politicians can expect to get in a wreck every 4.8 years. On the other hand, the safest large city is Phoenix (10.2) and the most driver-conscientious small city is Sioux Falls (13.8.)

7. Road Signs

When a small town in the Netherlands got rid of many of their road signs, their traffic deaths plummeted. Not what you’d expect, we know. But it seems that when we have traffic signs directing us where to go, drivers tend to pay less attention to what is actually happening on the road. The signs make us feel safer, which makes us more complacent drivers. When there are fewer road signs and you have to concentrate more on where you are going, you also avoid colliding with another car. Now more towns are considering removing some of their own signs

8. Being a Lawyer

If you get sued over a car accident, there is a good chance you could represent yourself.  A 2010 study by an insurance company found that a shocking 44 percent of lawyers who applied for car insurance admitted to being in at least one previous accident. Other groups that made the top ten were financial professionals (#2), nurses (#10), and, for some reason, dog groomers (#6.) On the other end of the scale were homemakers, who got the least speeding tickets and had the least accidents, which is weird considering this next entry.

9. Having Kids

In March, an Australian research team came to the conclusion that almost nothing is more distracting while driving than having children along for the ride. During a 16-minute car journey, parents will take their eyes off the road for an average of 3 minutes and 22 seconds to deal with their kids. Many also adjust their rearview mirror not to see the cars behind them, but the children in the back seat. And while many states have banned using cell phones in the car, there can’t do much about people driving with kids, which this study found was 12 times more distracting than taking a phone call.

10. Daydreaming

Even if you are driving alone in the car, down a deserted stretch of road with no billboards, not using your cell phone and with the radio off, there is still a chance that you will crash into something. That’s because you can’t stop your brain. When 65,000 people were asked what the cause of their car accident was, a surprisingly large number of them said daydreaming. Even if you try to concentrate on the road 100 percent of the time, there is a very good chance you will find your mind wandering. Suddenly, you're a mile down the road and you don’t even remember how you got there. And our short attention span leads to many accidents every year.

11. Gas Prices

The cost of gas has been all over the place in the last decade, so in 2008 Congress decided to find out how those prices were affecting how well people drive (you can see a PDF of the study here). It turns out, while we all complain about higher gas prices, those $4 gallons could be keeping you alive. First there is just the fact that when gas costs a lot people drive less, and the less cars on the road, the safer you are. But the study also found that people tend to drive safer when gas prices are up, possibly because they are trying to conserve as much as possible. The number of people who speed – especially on the highway – drops as gas prices increase. But the opposite is also true; as gas becomes cheaper more cars are on the road and people start driving a bit crazy again. So while you might hate filling up when gas prices are high, remember it could be saving you paying for a new car or a trip to the emergency room.

Check out Kathy’s book, "Funerals to Die For," on Amazon or Barnes & Noble

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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