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Hands on the Wheel and Mind on the Road

Public consultation by the BC Office of the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles on questions raised by a discussion paper entitled Distracted Drivers: Use of Cell Phones and other Technologies while Driving ended on August 7th, 2009.  At the time of writing, the public’s response is under review by the Solicitor General and the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles. Recent media reports are saying that a legislative response, i.e., new rules about cell phone use (and possibly about the use of other electronic communication devices (ECDs)) while driving are being developed.

In other words, BC may soon be joining the ranks of the other jurisdictions in Canada with provincial legislation specifically regulating (usually by banning) cell phone use while driving: Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Quebec. Similar Ontario legislation has passed third reading and is expected to come into effect in the fall of 2009.

In response to the prospect of such a legislative regime in BC, some continue to say that driving distractions being infinite can never be controlled by legislation, that careless driving charges need only to be enforced against cell phone using drivers, and that the privilege of enjoying the “extra-ordinary usefulness of the mobile phone in traffic” is about to be lost “to accommodate the failings of the few.”  The findings summarized in the above-noted discussion paper, however, tend to strongly support the opinion, as one newspaper reader put it so succinctly that, “people on cell phones are a menace to other drivers and pedestrians.”

The discussion paper defines the nature of the problem posed by the use of cell phones and other ECDs while driving and summarizes the findings of a range of “naturalistic, epidemiological, and experimental studies” conducted in the last decade in Canada, the United States, and Australia. The summary of the research from which the questions for public consultation follow concludes that:

1.       driver distraction of all types is associated with approximately 25 percent of crashes and results in a significant cost in terms of “tragic loss of life, serious injuries, and resulting monetary costs”;

2.       talking on a cell phone and manipulating ECDs requires significant amounts of attention being diverted away from driving tasks —the discussion paper is more definitive saying that “the use of electronic devices is likely the largest concern due to their frequency, duration, and level of cognitive and sometimes visual distraction”;
3.       drivers fail to process approximately 50% of the visual information in their driving environment when they are using ECDs; and
4.       in both simulated and real driving environments, using ECDs results in both crashes and near misses.

Emphasis on the indication in many of the studies that there is “no difference between the level of driver distraction associated with hands-free and hand-held cell phone use” is noteworthy. Many jurisdictions with legislation regulating cell phone and ECD usage while driving still allow hands-free usage.

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