Distraction calling

Russell Wangersky
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I pulled out to pass an RV on the Trans-Canada Highway near the Salmonier Access on Sunday night, when the driver of a speeding pickup decided to pass me on the inside, cut in front, and then pass the RV.

I use the term “decided” loosely, because I’m not sure the other driver had the slightest idea what he was doing.

As he pulled past, a glance over and you could see he had a Bluetooth earpiece glowing blue in one ear and, up to his other ear, a hand-held cellphone. Keeping track of two different callers, I find it hard to imagine that he was expending any more than about 20 per cent of his attention on the road.

Yes, I know I’ve written about this before. And yes, to save the usual complaints that there are other distractions when you’re driving — there are drivers who do their makeup, children who talk loud, even drivers who eat whole meals and then flick their garbage out the window onto the highway.

There are those who change CDs or radio stations on the fly, those who drive when they are tired, those who have to read or answer that critical text message (I watched a driver in a Range Rover cross into my lane on Quidi Vidi Road on election day and come at me head-on, because he was concentrating on sending a text message), even those who are distracted by the personal crises they are either driving towards or away from.

Certainly, there are plenty of distractions in the world as a whole: remember the two Northwest airline pilots who competely overshot their expected airport — at Minneapolis — and couldn’t be reached by air traffic controllers, because they were either in a heated discussion about the airline’s policies or because they were distracted by material they were viewing on their laptops.

But just because there are other distractions in our world, that doesn’t mean that we should blithely accept even more distraction in a world where drivers are controlling tonnes of metal, glass and plastic travelling at remarkable speeds.

When I hear that talking on a cellphone — hand-held or not — can impair a driver’s ability at the wheel every bit as much as drinking and driving can, I’m not reassured by the argument that they could be just as impaired by other distractions.

Would anyone really argue, for example, that drinking and driving is OK because, after all, we’re allowed to talk on hands-free cellphones? Didn’t think so.

One thing’s for sure: a cellphone is a distraction that can be dealt with as easily as turning it off, ignoring it or pulling over to answer that call — as long as the Pavlovian response to answering that call doesn’t involve suddenly swerving through traffic to get to the shoulder of the road before that critical call goes to voice mail.


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And any time you tell someone your horror story about cellphone distracted drivers, you’re certain to hear the person you’re telling the story to has a story that’s every bit as disturbing. Drivers who wander from lane to lane, who don’t seem aware of changing traffic lights or stop signs, who can’t seem to manage the simplest of driving tasks.

There are hefty fines in place: you can be fined as much as $400 for having a cellphone in your hand while driving. Not even talking on it, just holding it.

But the threat of fines and taking away points on your driver’s licence doesn’t seem to be much of a deterrent.

Fact is, if, on your five-minute drive to work in the morning, you don’t see at least one driver (usually more like 10) talking on a cellphone, you’re just not looking very hard.

We’re conditioned to respond, and our conditioning is putting lives at risk.


Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be contacted by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Trans-Canada Highway, Bluetooth

Geographic location: Quidi Vidi Road, Minneapolis

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Recent comments

  • willy d
    May 17, 2011 - 22:05

    The problem with cell phone distration while driving is not the deterrant ($400.00 and loss of points on driver's license), it's the lack of enforcement by police. You can double the fines and loss of points, but if there is no active enforcement with the threat of being caught, then where is the deterrant? A statistic I heard once claimed that cell phone use or texting while driving has the same effect of impairing ones driving ability as 3 beers. Drivers can get pulled over and asked to take a breatherlizer, so should they also be requested for their phone records to be checked if there is suspicision that they were talking or texting while driving. The Highway Traffic Act just last year add texting with cell phone use as another violation under the Act. So the question becomes how does the RNC enforce this. Well, as they already have a public 911 line to report impaired drivers, why not extent this to driver's that are impaired by their cellular devices. Anyone driving while distrated by their phone can be reported and their phone records subpeoned to verify the infraction. But this may be too much red tape for an officer to want to go through for a mere traffic violation, let alone the outrage from drivers proclaiming this violates their personal rights. Another easier method and one already employed by Police to catch drunk drivers, is the simple road side stop. Except with the cellphone driver you make the stops alittle less conspicuous. If you placed a plain clothed police officer at any major intersection with traffic lights, during say lunch hour any day of the week, it wouldn't be long before they will catch someone pulling up to the lights with a phone stuck to their ear. So if the justice system creates these rules, they need to be just as creative with enforcing them. Rules with out enforcement or likely consequences really don't act as a strong deterrant to deviant behavior.

  • What's missing here
    May 17, 2011 - 09:23

    So, to be clear, other than talking on the phone you didn't say other the driver was driving dangerously, that you had to brake or otherwise avoid him. I got to ask, how far from the RV did you pull into the passing lane that would allow the following driver to overtake you on the inside and pass you and the RV?