Distracted driving crackdown

Police dressed in bunny costumes? It’s just one strategy to nab drivers who use their cell phones behind the wheel.

Steve Marcus / Reuters

Every province has some sort of legislation against using hand-held cellphones while driving, but the threat of fines and demerit points hasn’t been enough deterrence. “This has now gotten to a level of arrogance where people just don’t care,” says Victoria police chief Jamie Graham. “It’s a staggering amount of people who still do this.” And while some drivers are thinking up innovative ways to stay hands-free—perhaps by tucking the phone into a baseball cap next to one’s ear, or taping their cell to the steering wheel—police are also trying out new methods to catch the many who just can’t leave the phone down.

When Cpl. Norm Smith, head of the RCMP traffic division in Nanaimo, B.C., donned a white bunny costume and walked up to street corners staring through car windows at drivers waiting at stop lights, he helped nab 61 drivers on their phones—twice the amount they’d catch in a typical day. “As soon as someone gets into a car or truck, they seem to think they’re invisible from everyone else,” Smith says. “Now when you see a clown on the street corner waving balloons, be careful because it could be us.” In Chilliwack, B.C., RCMP Cons. Bryan Martell dressed up like a panhandler, wearing old sneakers, a couple of T-shirts and a hoodie as he held up a cardboard sign. “One guy tried to give me McDonald’s,” he says, although he politely turned the offer down.

The reality that anyone might actually be a plainclothes police officer went one step further in B.C. this month, when Graham announced a new initiative for citizens to report someone on the phone while driving: take a picture of the driver and a photo of the licence plate, and then send the pictures to the police. If the citizen with the camera is willing to testify, the police will take the driver to court for distracted driving. The motivation for this new legislation, Graham says, “comes as a result of frustration with the numbers of people we see that simply don’t seem to get how dangerous this practice is.”

According to a 1997 study looking at Toronto drivers, cellphones increase the likelihood of a crash by 4.3 times, and they could decrease a driver’s ability to avoid a collision where someone else is at fault. “The risk was on top of the radios, coffee cups and screaming children in the back seat,” says Donald Redelmeier, a scientist at the Sunnybrook Research Institute, who led the study. “There is something distinctly more distracting about using a cellular phone while driving compared to these other common in-car disturbances.”

A simulator study from the U.K.’s Transport Research Laboratory found that reaction times were 35 per cent slower for those texting while driving, while a 2010 American study found the crash risk to be 23 times higher for someone texting at the wheel. Since 2010, the “It Can Wait” campaign has asked U.S. teenagers to pledge they will never text and drive.

New studies out of the U.S., however, are debating whether talking on a hand-held phone is causing more accidents and if the laws against it are accomplishing anything. A study published this August by the American Economic Journal analyzed data over a three-year period looking at crash rates before and after 9 p.m., when unlimited minutes on major calling plans took effect. Contrary to what the authors expected, the study found no increase in accidents to correlate with the uptick in the numbers of people talking on the phone in their cars after 9 p.m. It’s possible, the researchers wrote, that people adjust their driving behaviour—perhaps by slowing down—which offsets the risk of being on their phones. They also wonder if studies done in driving simulators may not represent a real-world driving experience. “If my sister is driving my nephews in her car, she is going to behave differently with some potential form of distraction than she might in a driving simulator machine if she’s being paid as a subject,” Saurabh Bhargava, the study’s co-author, told Maclean’s. Bhargava says another possibility for the lack of an increase in collisions is that some drivers, if they weren’t allowed to use their cellphones, might otherwise be distracted with something else, such as fiddling with the radio. While his study does not include texting or Internet browsing, which both take a driver’s eyes off the road, two other U.S. studies within the last year also found little evidence that hand-held cellphone bans reduce the number of traffic accidents.

Still, none of the new studies suggested scrapping laws banning cellphones while driving. Despite his research, Bhargava says his first instinctive reaction when he sees someone on their phone at the wheel is “to think they’re a terrible, inattentive driver and they’re going to get someone killed.”

Staying off the phone should be simple enough, but like regulating seat belts, there are many late adopters. For enforcement officials, they will continue to do all they can to convince drivers that they will be caught. “We’ve had officers saying we should use a YouTube channel and make a weekly film of all the people texting and put them online,” Graham says. “But there are privacy issues, so we have to tread carefully.”

Back in Nanaimo, Cpl. Smith might trade in his Easter bunny costume this fall for something more seasonal. “Halloween is coming up,” he says. “You might see Frankenstein out there.”

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