Sneaky, harsh – put brakes on distracted drivers any way you can

Fans viewing their super-action heroes on the big screen or TV know the powers of Robocop. He always gets the villains in knuckle-gripping arrests that boggle the imagination. But one thing Robocop doesn’t tackle is distracted drivers — those talking on a cellphone, texting or emailing in heavy traffic — flirting to be another deadly statistic.

Fans viewing their super-action heroes on the big screen or TV know the powers of Robocop. He always gets the villains in knuckle-gripping arrests that boggle the imagination.

But one thing Robocop doesn’t tackle is distracted drivers — those talking on a cellphone, texting or emailing in heavy traffic — flirting to be another deadly statistic.

So move over Robocop, Toronto police are on the case with “Hobocop” — Const. Randall Arsenault. Frustrated by drivers consistently ignoring distracted driving laws, Arsenault has dressed himself as a homeless person, standing on roadways and observing offenders using cellphones.

And then nabbing them.

Wearing a hoody, baseball cap, jeans and sunglasses, the clever officer carries a piece of cardboard, not unlike many of Toronto’s homeless people. On one side, the sign reads: “I’ve got high hopes — Frank Sinatra.”

The other side of the sign — a bit more direct — reads: “Hello, I am a police officer. If you are reading this you are about to get a cellphone ticket.” He flips the sign over when he spots an offender.

Arsenault’s novel approach has attracted a deluge of responses over Twitter from people who criticized the tactic as “sneaky and under-handed,” while others congratulated his ingenuity.

Law enforcement agencies are starting to embrace such tactics to clamp down on drivers who ignore distracted driving laws while they contributing to mounting statistics of fatal or serious crashes. In some provinces, authorities now claim distracted driving causes more deaths than drunk drivers.

Alberta Transportation reports that 20 to 30 per cent of all collisions involve distracted drivers. It adds that “distracted drivers are three times more likely to be in a crash than attentive drivers.”

It’s starting to sound like a broken record with authorities repeatedly saying drivers simply are not getting the message, and the current laws offer little in the way of deterrence. Minimal fines, lack of vehicle seizure capability and no demerit points — the toothless laws do not adequately address this growing problem.

A recent study by the University of Alberta says the evidence that the cellphone is a leading cause of death and injury on our roads “is clear and compelling.”

The study concludes: “At any given time, one in 20 Canadian drivers are using a cellphone while driving. Driver distraction is responsible for up to 80 per cent of motor vehicle collisions, and cellphone use has become a prevalent mode of distraction.”

The U of A study found that using a cellphone while driving might be more dangerous than driving drunk. “Having a cellphone conversation slows driver reaction time by 18 per cent, while alcohol (in a driver registering the illegal limit of .08 per cent) slows reacting time by 12 per cent.” (The study is available at http://www.cfp.ca/content/59/7/723.full.)

Canadian police are becoming more imaginative as they fight this problem.

In Nanaimo, B.C., an RCMP has worn the bunny costume as a disguise to spy on drivers.

Cops have also dressed as construction workers.

And Victoria, Thunder Bay, Ont., and Toronto police are now riding public transit to spy on motorists. They simply hop off the bus when an offender is spotted.

Ontario is leading the charge in imposing tougher penalties as deterrence. Legislation proposed recently asks that fines be raised to $1,000 from $280, and three demerit points be added to the offenders’ driving records.

Those are the kind of harsh penalties that other jurisdictions, like Alberta, must also adopt to stop this horrible habit in its tracks.

Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.

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