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Distracted driving legislation needs teeth: advocate

Officials call for harsher penalties to deter distraction behind the wheel

By: Amy Crofts

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Feb 19, 2014 06:00 am

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Under the distracted driving law you are not allowed to:

• Use hand-held cellphones
• Text or email
• Use electronic devices like laptop computers, video games, cameras, video entertainment displays, or program portable audio players
• Enter information on GPS units
• Read printed materials in the vehicle
• Write, print or sketch
• Partake in personal grooming (a.k.a. apply makeup, brush hair, etc.)

Coffee mug in one hand and a cellphone in the other, a woman drives down St. Anne Street in St. Albert.

Another woman is behind the wheel with a dog sitting on her lap, its front paws perched on the dashboard in front of her.

These are the worst cases of distracted driving Cpl. Don Murray of St. Albert RCMP traffic services has personally seen. Both women were handed tickets.

Many RCMP detachments are targeting distracted driving this month as the province’s Crotches Kill distracted driving campaign makes its rounds on television screens, billboards, posters and online ads.

Having passed its second full year, Alberta’s distracted driver law prohibits drivers – including cyclists – from using hand-held cellphones or other electronic devices – while driving.

The fine for distracted driving is $172. Drivers who exhibit more risky behaviours can be charged with “driving carelessly,” under which the penalty is six demerit points and a fine of $402.

Despite the harsher penalties, Cate Burant-Fernuik, co-ordinator with Students for Cellphone-free Driving at the University of Alberta said current legislation isn’t enough.

“You can go to any corner where there is a traffic signal and look at people stopped at the red light. A lot of people have their cellphones to their ear or are texting,” she said, noting the law’s compliance rate across the province is low.

Taking away demerit points, in addition to a fine, could add more teeth to the legislation, she said.

Last summer, Manitoba implemented a $200 fine as well as a two demerit point deduction for those caught driving while distracted.

Mayor Nolan Crouse believes the province should put in similar legislation.

“The province has taken one step, which was to implement distracted driving tickets, but I don’t think that’s gone far enough.”

Crouse noted the city could hire more municipal enforcement officers and other staff to do more surveillance on city streets, but the problem is bigger than St. Albert itself.

“This is a societal matter that has to get dealt with through public conversation and with proper fines and demerits. Really it is a Canada-wide issue.”

Recorded as part of a seatbelt survey by Transport Canada from 2009 to 2010, it was found that Alberta had the highest number of drivers using a cellphone behind the wheel, with 4.9 per cent. The national average was 3.3 per cent.

In St. Albert, officers laid 466 distracted driving charges in 2013. Edmonton police issued more than 4,000 tickets in the same year.

Burant-Fernuik said the message is getting out there, but drivers still need to be educated.

Especially about the dangers of cognitive distraction.

“Hands-free units free you from having to physically manipulate the device, but don’t reduce your need to think about the conversation you are having,” explained Murray.

“If anything, hands-free cellphones allow you to multi-task more behind the wheel, increasing the risk of collision further.”

Research has shown that driver distraction contributes to 20 to 30 per cent of all collisions. Distracted drivers are three times more likely to be involved in a collision than attentive drivers.

Burant-Fernuik said one of the questions students ask time and time again when representatives from Students for Cellphone-free Driving visit high schools is why distracted driving does not have a harsher penalty if it is more dangerous than driving while intoxicated?

“We don’t have the answer to that question,” said Burant-Fernuik.

“We feel that it would be prudent for the government to take a look at this and that is why we are saying to step up drivers’ legislation that will truly address the issue of distracted driving.”

It is a problem that is preventable, she added.

“There is no call that is worth a life.”


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