Advocates had been calling for stronger measures for years, because despite the greater knowledge and education around this issue, driving under the influence continues to be a major problem on our roads. While I’m not aware if drinking was related to the recent surge of fatal accidents in this province, it seems clear that something is happening on our roads that is leading to an increase in vehicular accidents. Based upon my own observations, distracted driving has become an epidemic, and perhaps the time has come to create similar stronger measures as have been applied to driving under the influence.
As I’ve noted before, I run on a regular basis and my usual morning route takes me down the Virginia River trail to Quidi Vidi Lake. Along this route, I cross three city streets with clearly marked crosswalks, and I have learned that a crosswalk is no guarantee of safety on our streets. Virtually every day, I stop at a crosswalk and watch the approaching vehicle zoom through without slowing while the driver concentrates on whatever is in her lap — clearly, her cellphone. To be fair, most drivers are paying attention and stop to let me cross, but I always have to wait and watch to see which type of driver is coming. While I have learned to pay close attention at crosswalks, one of the ones I use is on Newfoundland Drive, close to an elementary school, and many young children use it to get to school at the same time that I’m running. Children are not always as attentive, and I shudder to think what could happen should they be crossing when one of these distracted drivers comes along.
While I’m on the topic of distraction, I should point out that this problem also extends to walkers and runners. Walking down a street with your head down, texting on your phone, or running along a road with music blasting in your ears, clearly distracts you from potential dangers around you from moving traffic. Your own distraction can play the primary role in causing an accident that could injure or kill you or cause harm to someone else as the driver is forced to avoid hitting you. We all need to take some responsibility in making our streets safer for all who use them.
But while there is little we can do legally to deal with distracted pedestrians, the time has come to recognize that distracted driving is just as — if not more — pervasive and dangerous as drunk driving, and that fines are just not doing enough to act as a deterrent. Choosing to use your cellphone while driving impairs your ability to operate your vehicle and can lead to serious harm to you and others sharing the road; as such, it is akin to drinking and driving and the legal consequences should be the same if we are to make our roads safer.
In order to make inroads in this area, we need to focus more on prevention and not just on punishment. Groups such as MADD have done a wonderful job of educating the public on the dangers of drunk driving and, as part of their work, go into our schools to speak to students who will soon become drivers. Most of these kids have their own cellphones, but who provides them with the training about the dangers of using them? Driving a car is only one activity being affected by an increasingly distracted population, but it is the one that can have the most serious consequences for your physical health.
We can’t afford this level of distraction anymore; it’s time to pay attention!
Brian Hodder is an LGBTQ activist and works in the field of mental health and addictions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org