Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Just not getting the (text) message

Public still using cellphones while driving, police say

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On the cusp of the third anniversary of outlawing electronic devices while driving, it might be reasonable to expect the number of people yakking and texting while behind the wheel might be fast becoming extinct.

Well, hold the phone, buddy.

At least one major automobile association contends not only are more people using cellphones while driving -- motorists have become more brazen about breaking the law.

"I think more people are talking and texting now," said Liz Peters, public affairs manager for CAA Manitoba. "That's because more people have cellphones now and know how to text. It's like fighting an uphill battle against the proliferation of people wanting to be connected. It's growing exponentially."

City police aren't so sure more drivers are ignoring the ban, which the province enacted in July 2010.

"I don't know if it's more than ever," said Winnipeg Police Service Staff Sgt. Rob Riffel of the central traffic unit. "We're more cognizant than ever and hyper-sensitive to people weaving in the streets (while texting). You just look for it more."

'It's like fighting an uphill battle against the proliferation of people wanting to be connected. It's growing exponentially'

-- CAA Manitoba's Liz Peters

Regardless, more charges are being laid in Manitoba, with convictions, according to Manitoba Public Insurance, rising to 5,363 in 2012 from 4,065 in 2011. (There were 1,377 convictions in 2010, from July to Dec. 31.)

Charges laid by Winnipeg police rose to 4,837 in 2012 from 3,568 in 2011. In 2013 so far, city police have handed out 1,347 tickets under the electronic device law -- which carries a $195 fine.

Both Riffel and Peters agree, however, the use of cellphones behind the wheel has become far more blatant -- even more dangerous -- as drivers attempt to hide their devices between their legs and out of eyesight of patrolling police.

"With good intentions, we've made it more dangerous," Riffel said.

It's not that police don't enforce the law. They have plainclothes cops standing on busy street corners looking for infractions. They'll weave their bikes through traffic looking for texters.

But Riffel said police can't simply engage in an all-out blitz on dialing drivers. "We get slammed about being tax collectors already," he said. "We try to keep to a well-rounded approach."

Police did conduct one targeting project last February -- where MPI picked up overtime costs -- which produced 1,500 tickets. A similar crackdown is planned for later this year.

Still, anecdotal evidence of flagrant talking and texting is everywhere. Just the other day, Riffel pulled up to an intersection in a marked police vehicle. A few seconds later, a driver pulled up in the next lane. Texting.

"It's not like I pulled up beside him, he pulled up beside me," Riffel said. "It's unbelievable. I think it's just a sense of entitlement. It boggles my mind that people still do it."

Asked how often she witnesses illegal cellphone use, Peters replied: "Every day. Every single day. Whether it's talking or seeing that blue glow coming up from the car at night. They flagrantly ignore it. They hold their cellphone to their ear not really having a care in the world about who sees them doing it."

Talking is bad enough, Riffel said. But texting is deadly. (While cellphone driving is a distraction, some studies have shown it can be less disruptive than conversations with passengers or manipulating car stereo controls.)

"It's so dangerous," he noted. "It's right up there with impaired driving. It's a catastrophe waiting to happen."

Studies by the American Automobile Association, among others, have concluded operating a handheld phone or texting while driving is distracting to levels above passengers or listening to the radio or audiotapes. But acquiring hard data on how much those distractions are attributed to most day-to-day accidents is hard to quantify because often the drivers would have to confess to an insurance company, Riffel said.

Yet, honesty might be the best policy when it comes to the use of such devices. For example, Peters cited CAA surveys of customers where more than 99 per cent report seeing others use phones while driving. However, when asked if they ever make calls or text while behind the wheel, the number drops to 70 per cent.

"I don't think people are being as honest with themselves as they should be when it comes to their own actions behind the wheel," Peters said.

Will society change?

Two weeks ago, the province increased the penalty for driving while operating an electronic device. Along with the fine, those convicted will have two demerits added to their driving record.

"It's not just a $200 fine," Riffel said. "It's your insurance rates. Your driver's licence will go up."

Riffel hopes the additional penalty will spur drivers to change their bad habits, just as when a large constituency of drivers were slow to buckle up after seatbelt legislation was first introduced in the mid-1980s.

"When seatbelt legislation (was passed) it took a while," Peters said. "It was only after demerits were introduced that society starts to change."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 8, 2013 B1


Updated on Monday, July 8, 2013 at 6:43 AM CDT: replaces photo

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