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VPD constable Alex Chow pulls over drivers caught on their cell phones on Hornby Street in Vancouver, British Columbia on September 5, 2013. The B.C government, ICBC and the police are launching a month long campaign to prevent distracted driving across the province. (Ben Nelms For The Globe and Mail)
VPD constable Alex Chow pulls over drivers caught on their cell phones on Hornby Street in Vancouver, British Columbia on September 5, 2013. The B.C government, ICBC and the police are launching a month long campaign to prevent distracted driving across the province. (Ben Nelms For The Globe and Mail)

CITY LIMITS

Texting behind the wheel: More dangerous than drunk driving Add to ...

I spend as little time as possible behind the wheel of a car these days. But during the recent two-week spring break, I had no choice but to drive, criss-crossing the city daily to get the kids to various camps and activities.

In all of that time spent on the road, one thing became clear to me: Vancouver drivers haven’t put down their cellphones.

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Sure, you see fewer people (but still a surprising number) openly talking on their hand-held cellphones. But time after time, light after light, a glance left or right would reveal a driver with their hands in their lap, eyes down, and their thumbs jabbing away at the glowing rectangle. Most of them didn’t look up to see me glaring at them. When they did finally surface, if they made eye contact there was barely a hint of embarrassment at having been caught.

When the light turned green, some would give their phone one last sad glance before putting it down. Some continued on merrily with their phones in their hands. Some tossed it on to the passenger seat.

I know, what’s the harm, right? Checking messages for a few seconds at a red light? No biggie. Of course, the problem is that 30 seconds later, when they are hurtling through a school zone, the phone will buzz or ding and they’ll be compelled to look at it because it’s on the seat beside them. They won’t wait for another red light. They’ll take their eyes off the road and become a blind, two-tonne projectile.

This week Vancouver police arrested and charged a man with driving while prohibited after he was stopped for using a handheld device behind the wheel. The man had his licence suspended for two months after racking up 26 separate violations for distracted driving, as well as 17 other offences ranging from speeding to not wearing a seatbelt.

This extreme case has reignited the call for tougher penalties for distracted driving. Likely not coincidentally, Suzanne Anton, the province’s Attorney General, promised on Wednesday that increased fines for distracted drivers are coming, though she says she will consult with the province’s superintendent of motor vehicles before deciding on the amount of the increase and to what degree demerit points will be part of the penalty.

Ms. Anton says distracted driving is now killing more people than drunk driving in this province, but there is not the same level of awareness about the dangers.

“More dangerous than being drunk behind the wheel,” is a refrain uttered by every police agency and road safety organization in the province of late, but there is no indication that anyone is prepared to take it as seriously.

I suggested to Vancouver Police Sergeant Randy Fincham earlier this week that if I pulled up beside a driver who was clearly drunk and still swigging whiskey out of a bottle, I’d call 911 in about three seconds.

Sgt. Fincham replied, “You do have the ability to do that – if you’re concerned about someone operating a vehicle in an unsafe manner. It’s something that is risky behaviour and dangerous behaviour; we need to educate each other that this is not acceptable behaviour.”

More education isn’t what’s needed. How about this: get caught once – a $500 fine and enough demerit points to make you feel it when you renew your insurance. Get caught again – double the fine and hand over your licence for a month. I know, for many people it’s still far too mild a punishment, given the recklessness of the offence. For others it’s far too draconian. At the very least, the penalties should mirror those handed to drunk drivers.

Right now the $167 fine doesn’t appear to be much of a deterrent. Police in B.C. handed out 51,000 tickets last year and look around – very little has changed. Legislation to increase the fines will, according to the Attorney General, “likely come later this year.”

In the meantime, we’re left to police it ourselves, stopped at red lights and glaring at people who we see texting behind the wheel. I’m not sure what else to do. You could honk to get their attention and let them know they’re not getting away with it – except they are. You could roll down your window and scream obscenities at them; I’ve tried that too – it had zero effect on them but raised my own blood pressure considerably.

As a passenger, you could take their picture and record their licence plate and post it on the social media site of your choice. Shame is normally a great motivator, but this particular brand of offender appears to have been born without an embarrassment gene.

Or you could call 911, and try to convince the operator that the person texting behind the wheel is statistically more dangerous than a drunk driver.

No doubt, they’ll send someone immediately.

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