Distracted driving laws are far too lenient

Last year, a, horrific head-crash in Central Alberta claimed the lives of both drivers. There were no passengers in either vehicle, or the carnage would likely have been much worse.

Last year, a, horrific head-crash in Central Alberta claimed the lives of both drivers. There were no passengers in either vehicle, or the carnage would likely have been much worse.

RCMP suspected the cause was distracted driving.

Such circumstances have become far too common.

According to a recent report, distracted-driving fatalities have risen by 17 per cent in Canada, surpassing, in some provinces, alcohol-related fatalities. (Speeding remains the major cause of crashes, far more than drunk driving.)

It’s long been held that drunk drivers are the main players in fatal carnage on our roads. But according to the latest reports, technology has given us a greater threat. Studies now estimate that distracted driving accounts for 30 to 80 per cent of collisions — and cellphone use is widely accepted as an crucial contributor.

“Distracted driving has always been a major factor in collisions, but it’s been a result of electronic technology that has really brought it to the forefront,” Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Pierre Chamberland told the CBC.

In recent years, provinces like Alberta have enacted distracted driving laws and launched campaigns to educate the public and hopefully encouraging drivers to change their habits.

But too many people are not getting the message.

Data compiled by Transport Canada for the most recent five years available — 2006 to 2010 — show distracted-driving-related deaths rose from 302 to 352.

“What’s more,” CBC reported, “these figures don’t cover all jurisdictions and might understate the problem by as much as a third.”

A May long weekend traffic enforcement blitz by Alberta’s Integrated Traffic Units, which include RCMP and the highway sheriffs, this year ticketed 56 drivers for using their cellphone while behind the wheel, according to an Advocate article. Another 48 motorists were charged with drunk driving and 3,843 speeding tickets being handed out. Among the alleged speeders was a 15-year-old Red Deer girl without a licence, apparently travelling at 187 km/h on Hwy 2 in a car.

The epitome of ignorance reported to Red Deer area RCMP was a few years ago when a male Hwy 2 traveller was spotted drinking coffee and reading a newspaper while steering with his knee.

In Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, distracted driving this summer was rated as the No. 1 road killer, according to RCMP.

In Ontario, the CBC reported, “For years now, distracted driving has surpassed drinking and driving as one of the top causes of collisions (in that province), where it is consistently blamed for 30 per cent of highway accidents.”

Since 2008, every province and territory in Canada, with the exception of Nunavut, has created laws against the use of cellphones while driving. The range of fines vary substantially — from a low of $100 in the Northwest Territories to a high of $280 in Saskatchewan.

Alberta, to its credit, has among the toughest laws, in terms of details: in addition to cellphone use, the law prohibits reading, writing, hygiene and numerous other activities while driving. But the fine is a paltry $172, with no demerit points taken away from the driver’s licence.

Does the Alberta punishment fit the crime?

Hardly. Where’s the deterrence to a practice that’s now causing more deaths than drunk drivers?

It would be fine to say the legislation is just another sign of the nanny state interjecting where common-sense should prevail.

But there are far too many drivers who display little common-sense, and endanger the rest of us. Quite simply, they need to be babysat.

“You pick up bodies for 27 years, it pisses me off,” said Tim Baillie, a retired firefighter from Surrey, B.C. “Ever since those damned things (cellphones) came in, there’s been distractions. It’s getting worse and worse.”

And it won’t get better until we treat the problem with serious intent, either by developing technology that makes phones inoperable in cars, or by developing deterrent legislation that is penal enough to have the needed impact.

Rick Zemanek is a retired Advocate editor.