Police to crack down on distracted driving

It is not just a "young people" problem, and it involves more than just phones (which you shouldn't use when stopped in traffic)

Many drivers think it’s okay to use their phone when stopped in traffic; but a hefty fine awaits you if police catch you doing it. Enforcement of distracted driving laws will be stepped up throughout September.

Many drivers think it’s okay to use their phone when stopped in traffic; but a hefty fine awaits you if police catch you doing it. Enforcement of distracted driving laws will be stepped up throughout September.

While many people are getting the message not to text or make phone calls while driving, drivers who think that they can use their cellphones while stopped in traffic or at a red light should think again.

“This is one of the biggest misconceptions out there,” says Mark Milner, ICBC’s road safety program manager. “Many people think it’s safe to text if they’re in slow-moving traffic, or stopped in traffic or at a red light.”

He points out that when drivers are using their cellphones, their situational awareness is diminished by about 50 per cent. This can cause problems even if a driver is stopped.

“The best case scenario is that the driver is at a red light and is texting. The light changes, but they don’t go. Or they can see the adjacent lane start to move and start to move themselves, and rear-end someone, or hit a pedestrian.

“Driving includes when you’re stopped in traffic. If you’re in traffic, you shouldn’t be using your phone. If you’re pulled over at the side of the road or in a parking lot—ideally with your engine shut off—then it’s fine.”

While cellphone use is what most people probably think of when it comes to distracted driving, Milner says the law applies to other devices such as GPS units. “As long as the unit is correctly mounted and you’re not trying to program it while driving, it’s perfectly fine to listen to the instructions. But don’t spend too much time looking at it; you should be looking at the road.”

Milner says that there has been a little improvement in the number of people killed each year by distracted driving. Between 2005 and 2009 an average of 98 people per year died because of distracted driving, which dropped to an average of 81 people per year between 2010 and 2014 (the last year for which figures are available).

“We’d like to see that drop to zero, but it will take us a little while to get there,” Milner admits. He says a comparison with the change in attitude towards drinking and driving is a fair one. “The majority of people wouldn’t even consider getting in a car and drinking and driving now, and we really look down on people who drink and drive. We don’t have that social stigma with distracted driving yet.”

Milner points out that while many people think distracted driving is a “young people” problem, that is incorrect. “It’s an every driver in every age group problem. The graduated driving program is actually helping with this,” he adds, noting that learner drivers are constantly reminded of the hazards of distracted driving. An adult driver with two convictions for distracted driving in a year will have his or her record reviewed by the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles, who can then suspend the driver’s licence for three to 12 months. With a driver still in the graduated program, this review is triggered by one distracted driving conviction, and if their licence is suspended then they must start the two-year novice program over again.

One of the best ways to combat distracted driving is to have drivers speak to each other to drive home the message. Milner says that ICBC is also using portable driving simulators to show people how hard it is to use a cellphone while driving. “It’s pretty astonishing,” he says, describing people’s reaction to using the simulator. “People think they’re good drivers and that they can multi-task, but they quickly find out they’re not good at it.

“Humans can perform individual tasks on a serial basis, and we switch between tasks very quickly, so we think we can multi-task. But driving and using a cellphone use two different parts of the brain.”

During the month of September, police in B.C. will be ramping up their enforcement of distracted driving laws. Cell Watch volunteers will also be roadside, reminding drivers to leave their phones alone. Milner agrees that this is the best advice.

“If you need to use your phone while driving, park, do what you need to do, then put the phone away. Every phone has voice mail; and no call is that important.”

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