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Everyone hates distracted driving. Eighty per cent of Canadians believe that texting while driving should be a criminal offence, according to the results of a survey by the insurance company carried out by Leger Marketing.

Eighty per cent!

Can you believe it? That's around the same percentage of people who routinely text while driving.

Everyone hates distracted driving. Every province and territory, with the exception of Nunavut, has a law forbidding the practice. For instance, the fine for using a cellphone or hand-held device while driving in Ontario is $280 (up from $155) and the Ontario Liberal government wants to increase fines to $1,000 and three demerit points.

It's likely that politicians and law enforcement officials are stepping into the fray more out of desperation than the actual belief that fines and penalties will have an effect.

So far, fines have not really curbed distracted driving (which is now statistically more deadly than drunk driving). We've just issued lots of them. Constable Clint Stibbe told CTV News that since Toronto Police started going after texting motorists in 2010, 55,000 distracted driving tickets have been issued.

Punishment seems to be the only solution on offer. To stop this deadly behaviour, we're going to have to turn to tar and feathers, a day in the stocks and/or public hanging.

But maybe there's another way.

We could try holding those responsible for creating distracted driving accountable. You know, the way we hold those who make alcohol accountable for advocating for its responsible use and discouraging drunk driving. We could hold telecom companies and mobile service providers accountable. We might say, "Hey, you know how you keep making devices that distract us, and you've created an economy in which it's almost impossible to live without them, and how you make billions of dollars selling them and the wireless networks they use? Maybe you should help with the whole 'discouraging their lethal misuse' thing."

But so far, we've heard not a peep – instead we get the mantra, "Distracted driving is bad and here's a fine." They're selling an addictive product and it's basically buyer beware. Sadly, all that's likely to happen is that we'll see more "crotching" – more motorists, heads bowed, texting away covertly.

Fines should help change public attitude toward distracted driving, which is similar to its attitude toward drunk driving in the 1970s, which was, basically, your drunk driving is bad but mine is a time-tested art. It can best be summed up by "My texting behind the wheel is a necessity. Yours is a crime." That has to change. If you're in a car with a driver who is texting, you need to call them on it.

It will also require those who profit – vehicle manufacturers and suppliers, portable and aftermarket device manufacturers, portable and aftermarket device operating system providers, cellular service providers, and app developers – to start making devices that aren't so distracting.

That's exactly what the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed a few weeks ago in Washington at its public meeting examining "Visual-Manual NHTSA Driver Distraction Guidelines for Portable and Aftermarket Electronic Devices." In 2012, the NHSTA suggested the "development of non-binding, voluntary guidelines for minimizing the distraction potential of in-vehicle and portable devices." In short, fix distracted driving by getting rid of the distractions.

Here are its "Phase 1 Guidelines," which are intended to promote safety by discouraging the introduction of excessively distracting devices in vehicles:

  • The driver’s eyes should usually be looking at the road ahead.
  • The driver should be able to keep at least one hand on the steering wheel.
  • Any task performed by a driver should be interruptable at any time.
  • The driver should control the human-machine interface and not vice versa.
  • Displays should be easy for the driver to see.

Seems reasonable. Drivers want the same connectivity in their cars that they have at their desks. Telecom and car companies can provide it, but they should do so in devices that aid, rather than impede, safe driving. To be fair, some auto manufacturers and high-tech companies are working to equip cars with more connectivity and less distraction. In many respects, that's the Holy Grail for auto manufacturers – to create a car where the driver becomes a consumer who is free to browse and shop while stuck in traffic.

Fines and demerit points are one way to combat distracted driving. They create awareness of its dangers and may cause some to leave their cellphones in the back seat. Yet, until the automotive and consumer electronics industries start working significantly together to create technological wonders that don't distract us – either through non-binding voluntary guidelines or by government decree – we'll only be chipping away at the problem.

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