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opinion

Eating lunch with chopsticks. Also bowls of cereal. Applying mascara. Shaving legs. These are not answers to the Jeopardy! category, "What you must never do while driving," but they should be. These are actual activities performed by drivers, and witnessed by people I know.

How about reading a book? A police officer who visited my daughter's school talked about seeing someone driving erratically, and pulling the driver over to find that she had a book propped against the steering wheel.

I know, it's bonkers. Imagine reading while driving! Wait a minute, though: What's the difference between reading Gone Girl and taking a sneaky peek at your e-mail when the light's red? One seems ridiculous, the other – well, not so bad. One tiny glimpse, to answer the siren song of that arriving-text "ping." Everyone does it, right?

It certainly seems that way when you're driving, and the only thing visible in other cars is the hunched heads of people communing with the god cradled in their laps. ("Crotches kill," is the slogan on Alberta's genius anti-texting public-service ads.) There is a deadly epidemic of distracted driving in this country: Consider that in many provinces, it has taken over impaired driving as the main cause of traffic deaths.

In Ontario alone in the past six years, there were 505 deaths in road accidents where driver distraction was a factor, according to the Ontario Provincial Police. This is one of the reasons the province has just moved to stiffen distracted-driving penalties, which can now cost as much as $1,000 and three demerit points. Quebec and Manitoba each announced recently that demerit points would be increased for distracted driving.

Using a phone is just as compromising to a driver as being drunk, according to a study from the University of Utah's Applied Cognition Lab, yet it carries nowhere near the same stigma. Talking on the phone increases the risk of an accident by four-fold; texting by eight. Even hands-free conversations are linked with increased rates of accidents. Interestingly, the lab found that talking to an actual passenger, who can act as an extra pair of eyes and will shut up if traffic is tricky, is nowhere near as debilitating.

We know all these things, intuitively if not explicitly. We know that using the phone – even for a sneaky peek – is illegal. We may even have seen From One Second to the Next, the devastating short film made by Werner Herzog, of all people, about texting on the road and its lifelong consequences. According to a recent State Farm Canada survey, 93 per cent of 1,300 people surveyed think distracted driving is a problem, but only 35 per cent admit to doing it themselves. In other words, it's the other guy's problem.

Awareness campaigns have only limited effect. Quebec Transport Minister Robert Poëti admitted as much last autumn. "The reality is that we didn't reach our objective," he said. "It's a growing problem. We have a survey that says people realize this themselves, yet they continue to text." Quebec subsequently raised its demerit penalty to four points, but the fine remains a paltry $167. How many people will that deter?

My favourite, plain-spoken explanation came in an interview a Vancouver police officer gave a local radio station, News 1130, at the end of a month-long crackdown in March: "I don't know what people aren't understanding," Constable Brian Montague said. "I think part of it is the fact so many people are addicted to their cellphones, they're addicted to the need to know and the need to know now." When caught using their phones, Constable Montague added, drivers would say: "'Yup, I was on my cellphone and I know I'm not supposed to be, but I can't help myself.'"

This is, of course, the addict's rationale: I couldn't help myself; it's out of my control. As an excuse, it is flimsier than a wet cracker. Not all urges need to be met all the time, and jonesing to read the latest baseball score or answer a "Luv u baby" text doesn't make you any less guilty of committing a crime.

Among all the possible solutions, from disabling cell signals in cars to better driver education, emphasizing criminality might just be the way to go. Much higher fines, much stiffer penalties – Ontario's on the right road.