All Canadian provinces, as well as the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, have hand-held device laws, but more and more the focus of police and safety organizations is on the all-encompassing term, "distraction."
There are many firmly entrenched driving habits that we don't see as a problem. Eating, drinking, mucking with the radio, chatting to passengers, reaching into the back seat to rescue a pacifier, applying makeup, shaving, changing shoes, or adjusting the seat are all potentially dangerous.
And while the Canadian Automobile Association notes that "driver distraction is a factor in about four million motor vehicle crashes in North America each year," it's texting that dominates the list. How bad is it? A study from Virginia Tech Institute cites texters as being "23 times more likely to be involved in a crash or near crash" than their non-texting counterparts.
A recent study by Allstate Insurance have revealed that the threat of a fine is not a deterrent, says company spokeswoman Saskia Matheson. In fact, 94 per cent of study participants said they were aware of the legislation; just 7 per cent said it would make a difference.
So what does make a difference, especially to the group toughest to reach – teens?
"Awareness," says Matheson. "They're going to make their own decisions, but we want them to understand the impact of those choices."
Why is texting so bad?
"When driving, you need your brain, your hands and your eyes. Texting requires all of those things," she says.
At 90 km/h you will travel the length of a football field in five seconds – about the time you take to sent a text. That's 105 metres. Blind.
To that end, Allstate engages teens in a variety of hands-on challenges. From closed-course experiments inviting them to drive while texting or being distracted by passengers; from having them stand at intersections at peak hours to record distracted drivers; to contests creating videos delivering clear messages. It's a winning approach. Kids are better at doing than they are at being told, and the message is better received from peers than it is from authority figures. Recently released results from an online poll show that "89 per cent of high school students (aged 13 to 17) specifically said that they would also voice concern as a passenger in a vehicle where a driver was driving distracted."
I also hope it means that, if any of those students are concerned when it's a parent doing the driving, they will feel just as confident to speak up. Parents – whether intentionally or not – do a lot of do as I say, not as I do. Model the driving behaviour you demand of your teens.
The law is clear, says Constable Clinton Stibbe with Toronto Police Services. "It is illegal for drivers to talk, text, type, dial or e-mail using hand-held cellphones and other hand-held communications and entertainment devices. The law also prohibits drivers from viewing display screens unrelated to the driving task, such as laptops or DVD players, while driving." The fine? $155.
"The use of hands-free devices is still permitted, and drivers may use hand-held devices to call 9-1-1," says Stibbe.
But what of all the other distractions that splinter a driver's attention? When you get the coffee lid that refuses to snap into place? When a baby is wailing? When you hear something fly off the back seat? Multi-tasking may be an admirable trait elsewhere, but on the road, it can be dangerous.
Stibbe admits the act of drinking coffee or eating isn't going to get you a fine, but the law gets involved if distracted actions lead to careless driving. "Under current legislation of the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, there is a charge of careless driving, which could be laid if the circumstances of the drivers conduct while operating the motor vehicle met the threshold of the definition of careless driving.
"It's when you spill that hot coffee," he says. While it would depend on the circumstances, it's if that hot coffee lands in your lap and causes you to swerve. Cause a crash, and the door opens on a careless driving charge.
"Every person is guilty of the offence of driving carelessly who drives a vehicle or street car on a highway without due care and attention or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the highway and on conviction is liable to a fine of not less than $200 and not more than $1,000 or to imprisonment for a term of not more than six months, or to both, and in addition his or her licence or permit may be suspended for a period of not more than two years." – R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, s. 130.
Buckling up became instinct. Let's hope this does, too.