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Toronto police crack down on distracted drivers

Tony Cassetta, COO of IMS Applied Intelligence with the iLANE device. This device can read your email messages while one is driving the car and enables the driver to respond by voice to the message.

Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail/Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

Toronto drivers refuse to put down their cellphones and Blackberries.

A year and almost 17,000 charges after the law prohibited electronic distractions, Toronto Police face the dismal reality that many drivers believe they are crafty and covert enough to get away with using them.

The surge is dismaying in light of a drastic reduction in their usage immediately after the law came into force, said Sergeant Tim Burrows of the TPS Traffic Services bureau. He said that it didn't take long for the number of offenders to climb.

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"When people didn't get stopped by the first or second day, they started to do it more often," Sgt. Burrows said. "We have seen a steady increase, for sure."

In response, police are kicking an education and enforcement campaign into effect Monday to stem the tide of yakking, key-clicking drivers. Dubbed, Last Call: Whatever You Have To Say Can Wait, it will target drivers who talk, text, type, dial or e-mail using handheld cellphones or other communication and entertainment devices.

"With seatbelt legislation, it still took 30 years to get a 90-per-cent acceptance rate," Sgt. Burrows said. "We are hoping that with distracted driving, we will get there a whole lot faster."

Sgt. Burrows said drivers who are distracted by electronic devices are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash. They are four times more likely to have an accident if they are talking on a cellphone.

The key to laying a charge – which carries a $155 fine – is for an officer to actually see a driver operating a device. While cellphone offences are obvious, most people who send text or e-mail conceal their devices in their lap or on a passenger seat.

After a serious accident, police may be able to obtain records to ascertain that a driver was texting or using a cellphone. Judges may take the information into account as part of the sentencing process, Sgt. Burrows said.

Texting is a difficult offence to prove because police must show that the defendant was holding or using a device, said Lou Strezos, a Toronto defence lawyer.

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"Unlike Superman, the police don't have X-ray vision," Mr. Strezos said. "What if the person's blackberry shows no activity at the time the police say that it was used? In short, keep your records and don't text and drive."

The law came into effect on October 26, 2009. It did not criminalize the use of wireless devices that can be used hands-free, such as cellphones with earpieces or headsets. Global positioning system devices remained legal as well, provided they are well-secured.

Sgt. Burrows said that it took too long for the legislation to be enacted. "People got into the habit of talking on the phone," he said. "We have to try to break these habits now. I'm not an expert in addiction, but it almost seems like some people just have to take that call; they just have to look at that screen."

A ticketing "blitz" alone will not stop the problem, Sgt. Burrows said. "It's not effective in the long term. We also have to raise awareness of the issue and educate people as to why this is such a big deal.

"In a large proportion of accidents we investigate, people say: 'I didn't see that pedestrian step out,' or, 'I didn't see that car coming,' " he said. "Attentive drivers don't have that situation. They see things unfolding in front of them."

Sgt. Burrows said that as part of the education campaign, he has used his Twitter account to provide links to public-service ads that depict shockingly gruesome reenactments of accidents caused by distracted drivers.

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According to the journal's publisher, the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, cellphone distraction causes 2,600 deaths and 33,000 injuries each year in the U.S.

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Justice reporter

Born in Montreal, Aug. 3, 1954. BA (Journalism) Ryerson, 1979. Previously covered environment beat, Queen's Park. Toronto courts bureau from 1981-85. Justice beat from 1985 - present. More

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