Are Road Rules readers driven to distraction by how frequently we write about distracted driving? We hope not. We hope that Road Rules has helped our readers better understand the level of mindful attention needed for safe driving and inspired them to stick with obeying the rules even when they see, alas, many who do not.
The topic is complicated for sure and temptingly easy to dismiss as ‘much ado about nothing.’ Drivers have been driving and … fill in the blank here: drinking coffee, changing the radio station, playing CDs, disciplining their kids in the back seat, reading maps, petting the dog, fixing their make-up, conversing with passengers, … etc. for many driving years. Then along come the most powerful and convenient-to-use communication devices ever invented, like smartphones and GPS navigational devices and in-car televisions and digital audio devices that sync with the car’s sound system — devices that continue to dazzle us with their ease of use and multi-feature benefits — and all of a sudden a new definition “distracted driving” is born.
What’s new? It doesn’t feel like you could possibly be putting anyone at risk when, stuck in traffic, sitting through multiple light changes, you call or text on your hand-held phone to report on your non-progress. It doesn’t feel like you could possibly be putting anyone at risk when moving smoothly along the highway in light traffic you call or text on your hand-held phone to report on your progress. If you habitually, effortlessly use your mobile device while multi-tasking in lots of other situations, using it while driving seems equally harmless.
Receiving a ticket for such an offense feels unfair and wrong — a complete overreaction on the part of the attending officer acting under the authority of a harsh, overly punitive law, another example of regulation run amuck. Confounding the issue is the fact that the law actually permits emergency responders to use their mobile devices while driving. Many callers to a recent Vancouver afternoon radio show on distracted driving said they had witnessed police car crashes perhaps resulting from police officers driving while using in-car communication devices. “What gives?” was the gist of their calls.
Another issue is the growing awareness that the hands-free exception in the law is a distinction without a difference. Numerous studies show that hands-free calling is equally cognitively distracting, increases reaction time, reduces visual monitoring of car instruments and the general traffic situation and has a negative impact on the ability to control a vehicle. There is even said to be evidence that drivers who use hand-held phones may actually drive more safely than hands-free drivers, reducing their speed and increasing their following distance to reduce their crash risk.
Most experts focused on this subject appear to agree that distracted driving is a serious and ever-growing road safety problem. More study and data collection are needed to better understand the nature and extent of the risk, hopefully, to result in more internally consistent rules governing such behavior. No doubt, therefore, Road Rules will continue to address this important topic. Please stay tuned.