Distracted drivers: Many disobey laws banning use of handheld devices

One year after B.C.’s distracted driving ban kicked in, there’s little sign the threat of fines are helping drivers keep their eyes on the road and off their electronic gadgets.

Abbotsford police officers are still finding many motorists flaunting the ban on the use of handheld devices while driving.

One year after B.C.’s distracted driving ban kicked in, there’s little sign the threat of fines are helping drivers keep their eyes on the road and off their electronic gadgets.

“There’s a high percentage of people still using their cellphones whenever they’re driving,” RCMP Cpl. Jamie Chung said.

Police issued 32,000 tickets province-wide since the ban on handheld use of cellphones and similar devices began in February 2010, worth a total of $5.2 million in $167 fines.

In Abbotsford, about 400 tickets were issued by the end of 2010. Abbotsford Police Const. Ian MacDonald said while adherence has been strong for the tougher impaired driving laws, that hasn’t been the case for the laws on handheld devices.

“We (police) still continue to count numbers of people that continue to breach the new legislation every time we’re travelling from point A to point B,” he said.

MacDonald said drivers have become more covert in their use of the devices. For example, rather than holding a cellphone in front of them to text, they’re doing it from their laps, creating an even greater hazard.

Distracted driving remained a factor in 32 per cent of all fatal crashes in B.C.’s RCMP-enforced jurisdictions in the past year.

In the Lower Mainland, it’s linked to 48 per cent of traffic deaths – a total of 45 people killed by distracted drivers since the new law took effect.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a distracted driver who caused a deadly crash was talking on a cellphone or texting.

“It means they were doing something that took their eyes off the road,” Chung said. “Looking for a CD on the floor, playing with an iPod or maybe they spilled a cup of coffee and were wiping it up, not watching where they are going.”

Playing video games and programming GPS units is also a problem, he said.

“The worst thing I’ve seen is people looking down and texting when they’re making a left turn.”

Distracted drivers have been hit waiting mid-intersection to turn left when their green light goes yellow and then red. Others stopped at red lights can get rear-ended if the light turns green without them responding.

In addition to the fines, drivers caught texting or emailing also get three penalty points against their insurance.

RCMP Traffic Services Supt. Norm Gaumont suggested a review may be needed to examine whether the distracted driving penalties are stiff enough.

“If you look at our statistics, it’s clear the public doesn’t realize just how dangerous it can be if you don’t have your full focus on the road,” he said.

BCAA Traffic Safety Foundation executive director Allan Lamb said it’s “unbelievable” large numbers of drivers still talk and text.

He said everyone should rethink their near-compulsive need to be constantly plugged in and available to employers, friends and family.

He said businesses and organizations with employees who must drive on the job should develop a policy on distracted driving.

Enforcement of such policies can be a problem, however, as even ICBC discovered in recent weeks.

Private investigators hired by ICBC continued using handheld video cameras while driving to spy on an Abbotsford man suing for damages from a crash.

The tactic apparently continued until well into 2010 – after the ban took effect – until a judge criticized the practice and officials vowed it would change.

ICBC had long had guidelines requiring all employees and contractors to drive safely and obey traffic laws.

Technically, a handheld video camera is not on the list of specifically banned devices, so police could not issue a ticket under the new law, although they could pursue a charge under the Motor Vehicle Act of driving without due care and attention.

A policing blitz throughout February is now underway to step up enforcement of the law.

Officers will be on the lookout not just for phone and gadget users, but also drivers putting on makeup while driving or reading a book or newspaper, even though those are not ticketable under the new law.

Police may be disguised to snare violators.

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