EDMONTON — The president of Canada’s Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons says Alberta’s plan to crack down on distracted motorists will bring even more road carnage because it still allows drivers to talk on hands-free devices.
“It’s misguided. It’s dangerous and it’s going to kill more lives than it saves. They should be ashamed of themselves,” said Dr. Louis Francescutti.
“They’re going to give people a false sense of security — that it’s OK to drive (with) hands-free (devices) — and make our roads more dangerous for everybody.”
Francescutti was named last month to head up the college, which oversees the training of medical specialists. He is also the founder of the Coalition for Cellphone-Free Driving.
Every province but New Brunswick has some form distracted driving bill either in force or in the works.
The Alberta distracted driving bill forbids drivers from talking on cellphones or texting. It also would fine drivers who write while they drive, read a book or do anything else that takes attention off the road. It’s expected to pass by early December and later be proclaimed into law.
Anyone caught would get a $172 ticket.
The ban would apply only to hand-held devices. Anyone using hands-free devices is exempt — and that’s what Francescutti finds galling.
Francescutti noted the government’s own research suggests hands-free devices can be as distracting as the hand-held ones. Numerous private companies, he said, have already banned all in-car communication for safety reasons and to avoid liability in lawsuits.
“It’s the conversation (not the device) that’s the distraction,” he said.
People talking in the car are in sync with the traffic situation, he said. They can stop talking if things get dicey and even warn the driver about danger.
Not so on cellphones where the person on the other end has no clue what is happening.
During debate in the legislature last week, Opposition Alberta Liberal Harry Chase and Independent member Dave Taylor pushed for the hands-free ban, but their amendment was defeated by the Progressive Conservative majority.
The Tories countered that it’s impossible to tell if a driver is talking on a hands-free phone, talking to a passenger, or even simply singing along to the radio.
“The goal of the proposed legislation is to be practical, effective and enforceable,” said Tory backbencher Art Johnston, the government member steering the bill though the house.
Alberta “does not pass unenforceable laws and this is what law-enforcement personnel said to us: They feel it would be unenforceable.”
Tory member Ken Allred said within four or five years, the province will be able to look at the statistics and include hands-free in the ban if necessary.
“I think we’ve got to take baby steps in this,” he said.
Francescutti said he heard the same promise from the government when it made bike helmets mandatory for kids, but not for anyone over 18.
“If they don’t do it properly the first time, that’s what you’re stuck with,” he said.
Under the proposed law, drivers would also not be allowed to look at an electronic screen — such as a DVD player — but can eyeball global positioning navigation screens or displays needed for work, like a dispatch system or a manifest to track packages.
The bill would also allow hand-held devices for drivers responding to an emergency or who need them in their work.
The minister would also be allowed to make other exemptions and changes without having to bring the law back to the house for approval.
Wildrose Alliance critic Rob Anderson told the legislature that this ministerial freedom smacks of a Big Brother government allowing itself to interfere on a whim in the day-to-day lives of Albertans.
“It’s a nanny-state bill,” said Anderson, adding the provisions, such as the ban on grooming behind the wheel, are too broad.
“Grooming? Does that mean picking your nose or something? We’re going to pull people over for that?”
Don Szarko of the Alberta Motor Association said the government has struck the right balance. A total ban on in-car communication in Alberta — where drivers routinely have to travel great distances for work and play — might put the government so far out front on the issue, people won’t follow.
Szarko said the bill is still blazing a trail beyond cellphone use by including other devices.
“Eventually we’ll see consistency in all legislation in Canada that will deal with broader distractions,” he said.
He said the AMA would like to see the province revisit the hands-free issue in the future and even look at issuing demerits on a driver’s licence on top of the fines.
“(But) for the time being, Bill 16 provides a good solid base that is practical to enforce,” he said.