Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Texting addicts a threat

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The Canadian Automobile Association has again raised the alarm about the apparently high number of people who continue to use their electronic devices while driving, which according to some sources can be more dangerous than drunk driving. The CAA wants tougher penalties to put the brakes on the problem.

It's a fair proposal, but if higher fines don't change behaviour, will jail terms be next? How far should society go to protect itself?

If the history of drunk-driving enforcement is an indication, many decades could pass before governments succeed in breaking people of their addiction to texting and cellphones while driving. Zero tolerance will never mean absolute compliance, but eventually it does have an effect.

The Canadian justice system, for example, has been dealing with impaired drivers since 1921, when Parliament introduced a minimum penalty of seven days in jail for a first offence of driving while intoxicated, which was never defined. A motorist would have to be falling-down drunk before he (it was usually a he) was charged.

The law underwent many changes before the breathalyzer became a common enforcement tool across Canada in 1962. Penalties continued to increase and new offences, such as impaired driving causing death, were added to the Criminal Code, but people continued to drink and drive.

According to Impaired Driving in Canada, drinking and driving cases made up 12 per cent of all criminal charges by 2008 -- the largest single offence category. An estimated 53,000 impaired-driving cases are heard every year in Canada.

That's a very high number, but it's reasonable to assume it would be much higher without strong enforcement and stiff penalties, as well as the associated stigma.

It took many years before impaired driving was viewed generally as anti-social behaviour and evidence of a drinking problem. Groups such as Mothers against Drunk Driving helped raise the profile of the problem, which pressured governments to increase penalties and enforcement.

There are no similar groups to wage war on texting drivers, but as the casualty rate rises, the CAA will find rising support from the survivors of horrific crashes caused by drivers addicted to their electronic devices.

Of course there are many forms of distracted driving, but most sources, including Manitoba Public Insurance, say people who text while driving are 23 times more likely to be in a crash.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports texting is six times more dangerous than driving while intoxicated. Studies show it removes a driver's eyes from the road for nearly five seconds, or the equivalent of driving the length of a football field when travelling at 90 km/h.

Another significant statistic offers a small glimmer of hope. The highest percentage of scofflaws is young people whose lives are disproportionately linked to technology.

That will never change, but young people are easier to reach through the education system, where the message texting is no different than impaired driving must be driven home.

It takes time to alter behaviour -- the law against using cellphones and other devices is only four years old -- but the government may have to consider raising the penalty from the current $200 and two demerit points for violations.

Ontario plans to raise the penalty to $1,000 and three demerits on a first offence in an effort to break the cycle.

Like seatbelts and other rules of the road, police also need to step up enforcement to encourage compliance.

The central problem, however, is that too many people do not see the harm in texting while driving. Until that changes, the roads will continue to be dangerous places. Like impaired driving, the scourge may never be eliminated, but lawbreakers must be made to pay a price for the unacceptable threat they pose to others.

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 21, 2014 A8


Updated on Wednesday, July 23, 2014 at 11:10 AM CDT: corrects typo in impaired-driving cases number

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