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the new dui

I can still remember the golden age of drunk driving, a time when MADD and the RIDE program were far in the future. Driving after a few drinks wasn't actually endorsed, but it was an accepted part of life - I knew a decorated army officer who drank half a dozen highballs each evening, then went out for a drive in his Buick with his wife and a silver flask of Johnnie Walker scotch.

Then there was Ray, the managing editor of the newspaper where I started my newspaper career – he kept a bottle at his desk, went with us to a bar after we made deadline, then drove home. At his funeral, someone told the story of how Ray outsmarted the police when they spotted him weaving along Front St. – he pulled up in front of the Royal York hotel, left his car running, then walked out the back and hailed a taxi.

Those days are gone. But now we live in the age of distracted driving. As my colleague Jessica Leeder recently reported, distraction has now passed impaired driving as the leading cause of crashes and fatalities in many jurisdictions across Canada and the United States.

Given all this, we should focus our full attention on the road. But we don't. In the past three years, more than 55,000 people have been charged in Toronto alone with using handheld devices while driving. Millions more have done it without being caught. Traffic officer Clint Stibbe of the Toronto police estimates that more than 60 per cent of all drivers still use their cell phones while they drive.

Then there are the distractions built into the modern car. Until 2002, I drove a Honda Civic that had no radio or air conditioning. The dashboard controls were limited to a pair of sliding levers that controlled the heating system and a button that turned on the emergency flashers.

Last week, I drove a Range Rover with cameras that looked out the front and rear, heating and cooling systems that were controlled through a dashboard touchscreen, and music choices that included AM, FM, multiple satellite bands, and audio streamed through my smart phone.

Calls came in as I drove. Most of the time, I could answer simply by tapping a button on the wheel, but on occasion the call would get routed to my phone, forcing me to dig into my pockets, or ignore the call.

And who does that? In the age of email, Twitter and the five-second news cycle, our instinct is to remain connected at all times. Taking away the technology is not an option – like the wheel and the airplane, wireless technology has changed the world, and will not be going away.

"The Genie is out of the bottle," says Prof. Martin Pietrucha, director of the Larson Transportation Institute at Penn State University. "There is a combination of technology push and market pull. It's out of our control."

As I see it, texting is the new drunk driving. But attitudes and the law haven't caught up with the new reality yet. In Ontario, the fine for texting is $155, and there are no demerit points. A drunk driving conviction can cost more than $20,000 once you factor in fines, legal fees, increased insurance rates plus towing and impound charges.

I don't know anyone who will defend drunk driving. But distraction is a different story. Almost everyone I know picks up their phone at least occasionally while they're at the wheel. Police are allowed to operate the keyboards in their cruisers while they drive – they're also allowed to make business-related cell phone calls.

There's a message in those fines – distracted driving isn't that serious. There's also a message in the exemptions for police – that an expert driver can handle texting. I don't think so. Some day, digital technology may enable us to make phone calls and send messages safely while we drive. But that day isn't here yet.

Next week, Toronto police are launching a catchy new publicity campaign to draw attention to the issue of distracted driving – they'll be rolling around town in a hearse (complete with a genuine casket in the back) and signs that read: "That next text or call could end it all."

Agreed. It's time for all of us to hang up – even the police.

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