Increase in crashes predicted

Making it illegal to text while driving can produce an increase in collisions because the offenders just get sneakier, says a traffic safety expert from Red Deer.

Making it illegal to text while driving can produce an increase in collisions because the offenders just get sneakier, says a traffic safety expert from Red Deer.

On Wednesday, Alberta’s legislators passed Bill 16, which bans motorists from driving while distracted by activities such as eating, putting on makeup or using a handheld cellphone.

Transportation Minister Luke Ouellette said that there will be an education period during which Albertans will be informed about the change, with police to start enforcement about midway through 2011.

But other jurisdictions that have prohibited drivers from texting or talking on the phone have actually seen an increase in collisions, because drivers have tried to hold their phones out of view, placing them and the people around them at even greater risk, said Doug Taylor, founder of Safer Vehicle Use Ltd.

The province is correct in taking aim at motorists whose minds are occupied with something other than safe driving, he said.

But he has found flaws in Alberta’s new bill. Among them, drivers will be fined but will not be issued demerit points. Therefore, for some the $172 fine will simply become a cost of doing business, he said.

For Alberta drivers to really buy in, there needs to be a cultural switch, which Taylor said would take 10 to 20 years.

Sgt. Bob Bell, head of traffic for Red Deer City RCMP, said he is confident the new bill will be relatively easy to enforce and will encourage a large number of drivers to think twice about multi-tasking as they’re heading down the road.

It’s common for local police conducting Check Stops to pull people in and find they’re still talking on their phones, or for them to pick up the phone if it rings while they’re talking to police, as if it’s an absolutely normal activity, said Bell.

“(Alberta’s government) put a lot of effort into getting the right legislation. Now, it’s just a matter of educating the public as to what the rules are and then they’ll go with the enforcement.”

Drivers talking on cellphones are usually oblivious to the fact that they’re doing a very bad job, said Bell.

One tool that will help traffic police is that most have cameras mounted in their cars, so whether it’s a book, a hairbrush or a cellphone, the obvious infractions will be caught on tape. People talking on the phone seldom notice police cars — or anything else — in their rear view mirrors, he said.

Ouellette, MLA for Innisfail-Sylvan Lake, said his motive for pushing for the distracted driving legislation was to make sure that all Albertans get home safely every night. In caucus on Thursday, he asked his fellow government members not to wait until the bill is enacted, but to start following the new rules now to set an example for everyone else.

“Our message is clear: Keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road.”

bkossowan@bprda.wpengine.com