Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Demerits for using cellphone

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The odds are pretty good most Winnipeggers, if asked, would say they've recently seen a driver talking or texting on a cellphone while motoring merrily along the way. That's a reflection of the addictive nature of the phone, the reflexive need to answer the ringtone and the disdain for the law -- or the cost of the infraction -- that makes it illegal to do so.

It may also reflect the odds of getting caught. Notwithstanding the recent blitz to nab scofflaws of the cellphone ban that took effect in Manitoba in July 2010, motorists can observe chatting and texting by fellow drivers on a daily basis. A CAA Manitoba survey of its members released earlier this week indicated people believe that after a full two years of the law, people are seeing an increase in the use of cellphones on the road.

There has been nothing produced to show the impact of the provincial changes to the Highway Traffic Act on the safety of roads. Evidence in studies conducted show that while risk of crashing rises when drivers talk, dial or text on the cellphone, laws that prohibit talking or texting on a phone while driving in the United States appear not to have reduced the frequency of collisions. In fact, collisions increased in four states examined, prompting the Highway Loss Data Institute to speculate in 2010 that surreptitious use of cellphones by drivers aware of the law actually increases the chances of collision. Manitoba motorists can appreciate the phenomenon, as it is not uncommon to see drivers nodding and bobbing away, trying simultaneously to keep their eyes on the road and in their laps.

The cellphone ban has its weaknesses. Primary among them is the fact the law is only as good as the enforcement. Sweeps by police have been decried as revenue-raising campaigns -- the latest city budget notched in an extra $1.4 million in revenue from traffic enforcement -- which serves to incite cynicism among citizens, but highlights the fact that without constant surveillance drivers see the odds as generally working in their favour.

The Manitoba law slaps a hefty fine on offenders but registers no penalty upon the driving record, despite the fact the offence is registered against the driver and not the registered owner of the car, as with photo radar.

Further, the risks associated with cellphone use while driving have not had the kind of publicity that has helped stigmatize drinking and driving, which has become a cultural taboo of sorts through intensive enforcement, onerous penalties and high-profile media campaigns. Drivers on graduated licences are also entirely banned from having any alcohol in their blood while driving.

Two years is sufficient time to expect a law with bite would have reduced the chat habit of drivers. Manitoba Public Insurance can crunch data on crash incidence reports to determine whether cellphone use remains a factor, and police should report the results of their enforcement campaigns. Analysis of who is most likely to be using their cellphones while motoring may indicate the need to target special penalties.

Ultimately, it might take a bigger hammer to hammer the message home. The Highway Traffic Act can be tightened to deliver a stronger message on the perils of cellphone distractions. As with speeding, Manitoba drivers who cannot resist the temptation to chat or text while on the road should see merits lost or demerits added to their licence.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 18, 2012 A10

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