Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Park the cellphone when you drive your car

City police take a bite out of drivers' wallets

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If you're like most people and you think you can get away with using your cellphone while driving because the cops aren't watching, I have some advice for you.

You better look out for the cop they call Jaws.

Actually, that's what I call him.

I know one driver who didn't see him coming until it was too late, so the guy's going to have to pay the price -- $199.80.

I spotted the young driver stopped at Lombard Avenue and Rorie Street with Const. Steve Bowden leaning in his window, getting ready to take a bite out of his wallet.

It was lunch hour Tuesday, which made the timing perfect, because I had a column on the subject that day, when Bowden was on his bicycle circling the downtown like a great white dining out on drivers near Portage and Main.

Which made me wonder something.

How many tickets have police handed out for hand-held device infractions in the two years since the provincial law was enacted?

Staff Sgt. Rob Riffel, the commander of the central traffic unit, had the numbers and they suggest Const. Bowden isn't the only cop feasting on cellphone-using drivers.

Riffel told me Wednesday that between July 15, 2010, and July 15, 2011, Winnipeg police ticketed 2,610 drivers for using their cellphones while driving.

That's more than $500,000 in fines.

But here's the really good news/bad news, depending how you look at.

Between July 15, 2011, and July 11, 2012 -- a few days short of the full 12 months -- the number of tickets issued nearly doubled, to 4,914.

That's an average of about 13 tickets issued every day of the year.

Approximately 1,000 of those came in February, when city police conducted an MPI-funded crackdown.

Riffel believes if the province decides to add driving demerits to the fines, there will a big shift away from drivers using their cellphones. Or going to the Bluetooth, which can cost a lot less than a ticket.

That hands-free option used to be $149, Riffel recalled. Now, he said, it's $79.

Riffel believes people will gradually begin complying in larger and larger numbers, as more recognize the danger involved and peer pressure is exerted.

He uses the comparison of seatbelt use, which fell off shortly after their use became mandatory and spiked to near total compliance as soon as demerits became a factor.

There's a reason they're effective.

Demerits add up on driver's abstracts, which can affect employment for anyone who needs to drive for a living, including anyone who wants to apply for the police service.

Of course, demerits are also a factor in vehicle insurance rates, which compounds the sting of a fine.

But drivers who insist on talking on their cellphones while driving need to know the police are out there watching for them.

And not just on bikes.

They're on motorcycles, in cars, stationed on overpasses and street corners, hiding in plain sight in plain clothes.

"So we're getting much better at it," Riffel said.

Police are also able to obtain access to cellphone records, which makes investigating accidents easier, too.

While talking on a hand-held device and driving is bad, there's something worse, of course.

Texting.

"We've had a couple of fatalities based on texting," Riffel said.

That's in the last year.

He believes the tragedies make his officers even more dedicated to watching for people driving with their heads down.

"Our traffic officers are the ones who go to the fatal crashes."

Which brought Riffel to the ultimate reason he thinks cellphone use in vehicles will die a natural death.

Because it can cause the other kind.

And it can happen to anyone, at any time.

"It affects every single one of us."

So here's a suggestion to every driver who still doesn't get it: Keep your head up and your cellphone in the pocket.

And if you don't?

Well, like the guy at Lombard and Rorie, you might not see that great white shark on a police bike coming until he takes a bite out of your wallet, too. Consider that your last heads-up.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2012 B1

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