Transport and safety concept. Young blonde woman driving car using her mobile phone and headset, side view

Hergott: Distracted driving penalties continue to increase

Paul Hergott discusses the consequences for distracted driving compared to impaired driving

Distracted driving penalties are increasing. Again.

And immediate roadside driving prohibitions (like those for impaired driving) might be coming.

Goodness. Much ado about distracted driving!

Would it be fair for distracted driving penalties to be as swift and severe as those for impaired driving?

Consider which behaviour is more deserving of swift and severe consequences.

Which is a clear, conscious choice?

Driving after drinking alcohol is a clear, conscious choice. Absolutely. But that’s not the offence. The offence is doing so with a blood alcohol concentration at or above 0.05.

Depending on gender, weight and size, it could take as little as two or as many as five drinks over a two hour period to reach 0.05.

You might get it wrong. Adding to the problem, the consumption of any alcohol will impact on your ability to monitor that consumption.

Don’t you dare interpret me as making light of the serious problem of impaired driving, by the way. I am simply comparing the 0.05 offence with distracted driving on the basis of conscious choice.

Neither cell phone use, nor texting can be “mistakenly” engaged in. Doing so while driving is a conscious choice.

A conscious choice to engage in an illegal driving behaviour that you know is dangerous. Doesn’t that cry out for swift and severe consequences?

Look at speeding as a comparison.

Exceeding a posted speed limit can occur absent-mindedly and results in a fine. Excessive speeding results in the immediate impoundment of your vehicle.

Do we need swift and severe consequences to curb distracted driving? Let’s look at the history of distracted driving penalties in British Columbia.

We prohibited distracted driving as of January 1, 2010, with a fine of $167.00.

A lack of effectiveness led to a change effective June 1, 2016.The fine increased from $167.00 to $368.00, along with 4 points there was a total financial hit for a first time offender of $543.00. A second offence resulted in fines and points costing up to $1,256.00.

That increase didn’t do much to change driver behaviours. According to Solicitor General Mike Farnworth, the number of distracted driving tickets issued between June, 2016 and June, 2017 (44,000) was a reduction of only 13 percent from the year before.

Now we have another increase coming as of March 1, 2018. No change for first time offenders, but a second offence will come with up to a whopping $1,996.00 of fines and points.

When announcing the latest change, our Attorney General was quoted as saying: “Once implemented, this change will treat distracted driving as the serious high-risk behaviour that it is; one that is on par with impaired driving and excessive speeding”.

I agree. It is a serious high-risk behaviour on par with impaired driving and excessive speeding. But no, this change does not bring the consequences up to those levels.

A first offender will still drive way with a few hundred dollars of fines and points. We need swift and severe.

But Houston, we have a problem. We have a very big problem.

Let’s say we get there. Let’s say we finally impose swift and severe consequences for distracted driving.

Let’s say that those consequences result in a meaningful reduction of distracted driving.

What would that accomplish? Unfortunately, not fewer distracted drivers.

I’m playing fast and loose with the term “distracted driver”.

The law in British Columbia defines a distracted driver as one who is using a handheld electronic device.

The more expensive you make it to use a handheld electronic device while driving, the more financial incentive you give drivers to purchase hands free technology.

So they can engage in the exact same activities hands free. And do so under the full sanction of the law.

But that’s much safer, isn’t it? That’s not “distracted driving”, is it?

Way back in 2009, the year before we banned the use of hand held electronic devices, the British Columbia government did their research. The results of that research was published in a “Discussion Paper” which you can find through this link: Discussion Paper.

Quoting from the Executive Summary: “In both simulated and real driving environments, the use of electronic devices has been shown to result in crashes and near misses. Drivers fail to process approximately 50 per cent of the visual information in their driving environment when they are using electronic communication devices. Evidence also concludes that there is no difference between the cognitive diversion associated with hands-free and hand-held cell phone use.”

That might blow your mind. I get it. Not only is it difficult to understand, your own government has been telling you since 2010 that it’s the hand held version that’s dangerous, impliedly putting up billboards saying, “Hands free cell phone use and texting is perfectly safe”.

Are you sincerely interested in understanding why the hands free use of cell phones and texting is just as (if not more) dangerous? Please read this very readable explanation called “Understanding the distracted brain” put out by the United States National Safety Council: Understanding the distracted brain.

Not a reader? Prefer to learn visually? Please check out this Myth Busters episode comparing hand held and hands free cell phone use. Hardly scientific, but it might help you get it: Myth Busters.

Has the ban of hand held electronic devices done anything to make our roads safer? No. Not only are the penalties still inadequate, but the very best outcome is a transition to the hands free version that’s just as dangerous.

I am going to take this a step further. Banning hand held electronic devices while driving, with increasing penalties, is actually making things worse.

Before the change in the law in 2010, the driving public was starting to understand that we should keep our phones in the truck of the car. By imposing a ban on only the hand held version, we sent the loud and clear message that hands free cell phone use and texting are safe.

As we became more and more dependent on our electronic devices, we became more and more inclined to use them while driving. Safety conscious drivers have been led to believe, by government policy, that it is safe so long as we put the money into hands free technology.

I think it’s important to note that our government specifically considered this possibility back in 2009. Quoting from their very own Discussion Paper:

“Legislation that bans only hand-held cell conversations conflicts with the research that has consistently found no difference in the degree of distraction between hand-held and hands-free cell conversations. As a result, these laws may not provide the expected benefits and may even generate harmful indirect impacts such as a false sense of security for those who talk on hands-free devices while driving.

A conspiracy theorist would think that the government is somehow profiting from the huge hands free technology industry!

We need an outright ban of the use of electronic devices while driving. We needed it back in 2010 and we need it even more now. A clear message must be sent to the driving public that cell phone use and texting have no place behind the wheel.

Do you agree? Sign my petition: Petition. Disagree? Please do the miniscule amount of research it will take to become informed and then sign my petition.

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