Talking on a cellphone impairs your ability to operate a motor vehicle. Regardless of age, income, IQ, or whether you’re male or female, an experienced professional driver or a first-timer out in mom and dad’s station wagon, if you’re driving and dialing, you’re flirting with fatal distraction. (And if you are a new driver, you’re more than flirting. You’re practically guaranteeing disaster.)
Need proof? There’s plenty of it. A 2004 AAA study shows that talking on a cellular device reduces a driver’s ability to identify, recognize and respondto traffic hazards by an average of one quarter of a second (a car going a mere 50 km/h travels 14 metres [45 feet] per second). Further- more, the study points out, drivers engrossed in cellphone conversations miss twice as many traffic signals, and when they do detect them, they take longer to react.
As for those who advocate hands-free phones as a solution to cellphone distraction, the effect of hands-free phones on drivers’ concentration was found to be the same as for hand-held units. Researchers point out that this is because driver distraction is a cognitive – not physical – problem.
New drivers are even more vulnerable. A recent Ford Motor study shows that drivers – without distractions – have a three-per-cent miss rate in identifying potentially dangerous scenarios. When participants re-ran the tests while on their cellphones (hands-free models, yet), the miss rate jumped to 13 per cent for adults and 50 per cent for teens. The results are particularly alarming considering that one in every five new Alberta drivers is involved in a collision during their first two years behind the wheel.
Studies like these, as well as recent fatalities caused by inattentive drivers on cellphones – including the case of an Alberta man who drove his car into the back of a truck while leaving a message for his wife in 2004 – have led jurisdictions worldwide to ban, or limit, the use of cellphones in motor vehicles. No fewer than 50 countries and 16 U.S. states have such legislation in place, but Newfoundland is the only Canadian province to follow suit, and its regulations apply only to hand-helds.
Cellphone bans of one sort or another have been mulled over by Alberta legislators, most recently in 2004. But the government has concluded that adequate legislation is already in place to deal with such offences as driver distraction. If police officers determine that improper cellphone use may be at the root of a collision, they can charge offenders with careless driving.
Unfortunately, however, this is a problematic area, says Sgt. Ted McCauley, a 26-year veteran with the Calgary police and head of its Traffic Education Unit. Most drivers are reluctant to admit they were on the phone at the time of a collision, and unless police have good reason to suspect they were, they simply cannot subpoena cellphone records for “every little fender bender,” says McCauley.
The rush to limit cellphone use on the road is stalling not just in Alberta, but elsewhere in Canada. B.C. Solicitor General John Les announced recently that his government wouldn’t even limit cellphone use by new drivers enrolled in the province’s graduated licensing program. Part of the reluctance to legislate in Canada is due to the fact that, though laboratory evidence clearly shows that cellphone use by motorists leads to cognitive distraction, there simply haven’t been enough proven cases – spectacular examples aside – where a cellphone was to blame to encourage legislators to take action.
Further complicating the matter is the evidence that cellphone use in motor vehicles is just one of many distractions plaguing today’s techno-addicted drivers. Consider this nugget. According to a 2004 AAA study, cellphone use holds only the number eight spot on the list of driver distractions that lead to collisions. The number one killer is an “outside person, object or event.” Statistically, motorists are almost eight times more likely to experience a collision while attempting to adjust their radio, CD player or onboard navigation system than while talking on a cellphone.
As Sgt. McCauley puts it, cellphones “add to the soup,” but it would be “unfair to pick on them” because there are other high-tech devices that have increased driver distraction. “A lot of the higher-end cars now have navigational systems with a little TV screen. You can operate your stereo and GPS on this little screen, and they’re worse than cellphones in that people try to operate them while they are driving.”
Does this mean it’s OK to drive and dial, or that, comparatively speaking, it is “safer” than other distracting behaviours? Not at all, but it does raise the question: Why stop at banning cellphones? And will such a ban be effective? Some jurisdictions with driver distraction laws in place, such as New York State, find that after an initial period of compliance (unless enforcement is vigilant) drivers eventually revert to their old habits.
So how should policy-makers tackle the issue? As it happens, there is a third way, says Scott Wilson, AMA manager of policy development and promotion, advocacy and community services, one that requires a big-picture approach. “People think it’s a fairly simple issue but it isn’t,” he says. Jurisdictions like Newfoundland that enact knee-jerk legislation are “taking action without benefit of research,” he says.
AMA’s approach, says Wilson, has been arrived at after consultation with researchers and association members and includes public education campaigns addressing driver distraction. It also adds to the research pool to see if legislation is really necessary, i.e. ensuring that investigators find out if cellphones were a factor in the collisions reported. AMA’s other major policy initiative is to get cellphones and other high-tech distractions out of the hands of new drivers.
“The best way we know how to introduce new drivers to full driving privileges is through a graduated system that allows them to practise,” says Wilson. “Why would we want them on the phone at the same time when the research shows their learning will be impaired by this activity?”
Finding support for further research is likely to be an easy sell in Alberta, but whether or not the province will enact cellphone restrictions for those enrolled in GDL is the question. Jeanette Espie-Lefebvre, executive director of the province’s Traffic Safety Initiative, says that while consultations are currently underway at the ministerial level with respect to traffic safety laws, there’s no guarantee additional GDL restrictions will make it onto this year’s agenda. In the end, it may be the courts, not the legislators, that decide the future of cellphone use in motor vehicles. In the U.S. there have been some spectacular awards given to the victims where at-fault drivers were found to be engrossed in cellphone conversations.
Dyke Industries of Little Rock, Arkansas, for example, got tagged for U.S.$16.2 million when one of its employees was found to be using a cellphone at the exact moment of collision. Similarly, a Virginia-based law firm, Cooley Goddard, was slapped with a U.S.$30-million wrongful death suit because one of its employees was conducting company business on her cellphone when she struck and killed a 15-year-old boy. The fear of finding themselves in similar straits has encouraged a number of Alberta companies to enact policies forbidding employees from driving and dialing while on company business.
Following a chat with Dr. Louis Francescutti, an emergency room doctor at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital and spokesman for the Coalition for Cellphone-Free Driving, Jim Hole, co-owner of Hole’s Greenhouses, went just this route. “After looking at the data and talking to
Dr. Francescutti, we sensed it would be a lot safer for everybody if we implemented such a policy,” says Hole. The problems it might cause in terms of our business are “far outweighed by the safety issue, not to mention the liability concerns.”
Other Alberta companies following suit include Halliburton, Tucker Wireline Services Canada, Sterling Crane, Shippers Supply Inc. and Schlumberger. And for those who aren’t convinced that liability can or will be an issue, consider this advice posted for business owners on the website of Ogilvy Renault, a national law firm based in Montreal: “As a defensive measure, employers who do not already have them should immediately issue written directives to all employees that cellphones (and similar devices) must not be used while driving. Should an employee ever require the use of a cellphone while driving, he or she should be directed to stop the vehicle in a safe location before commencing the cellphone conversation.”
The AMA’s official position is that drivers should not use a cellular phone while their vehicle is in motion. Furthermore, all AMA and affiliated company employees using a corporate cellphone, or who are discussing corporate business on any cellphone, are required to stop their vehicle and safely park away from traffic for the duration of their call.
It comes down to this: No matter how important the call, it’s probably not worth your life – or someone else’s.
Just Drive, We Said
How many collisions are caused by distracted drivers?
Driver distraction is cited as one of the most common contributors to traffic crashes, but the numbers vary depending on the study. According to a 2006 study published by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), driver distraction is believed to have been a factor in eight out of every 10 crashes. That figure translates into almost 4 million crashes each year. Estimates of a similar magnitude have been cited in other reports.
Is using a cellphone while driving illegal in Canada?
Since April 1, 2003, it has been illegal in Newfoundland and Labrador to use a hand-held cellphone while driving. While several other jurisdictions have considered legislative interventions, there are currently no other Canadian provinces/territories that have enacted legislation.
However, drivers who cause a collision while using a cellphone or who are observed driving unsafely while using the device can be charged under a number of other provincial, territorial or federal laws, including, but not limited to: dangerous driving, careless driving and criminal negligence causing death or injury.
Is using a cellphone while driving more dangerous than other distractions?
Research conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety indicates that the use of cellular phones does create an extra risk, largely due to the conversation that is involved. Risk occurs when you are thinking about the conversation you are having in addition to the physical distraction of handling or looking at the device. Stressful, emotional or important conversations are even more distracting.
Alberta Distracted Driving Law
Section 115 of the Alberta Traffic Act prohibits drivers who operate vehicles without due care and attention, or without reasonable consideration for persons using the highway. This is further defined as driving in a way that will distract, startle or interfere with other motorists. Alberta drivers are also not permitted to drive with a person, animal or thing occupying the front seat of the vehicle that impedes the drivers’ access to and use of the steering wheel, brakes and other equipment necessary to operate the vehicle safely. Motorists found in violation may be subject to a loss of up to six demerit points.
What is CAA doing to address the problem of distracted driving?
In the fall of 2005, CAA, along with the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, co-hosted the first ever International Conference on Distracted Driving. Delegates from across Canada, the United States and Europe met to discuss the larger issue of distracted driving, its causes and to determine the most appropriate solutions to combat distracted driving.
CAA is working on education initiatives rather than seeking outright bans of cellphones and other devices while driving. The onus, then, is on motorists to manage their own distractions and practise safe driving.
Source: CAA “Driven to Distraction”; http://www.caa.ca/driventodistraction