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This article was published 26/12/2016 (1852 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As distracted drivers continue to cause traffic deaths on Manitoba roads, police are coming up with increasingly inventive ways to nab those who insist on using their phones behind the wheel.
So far in 2016, distracted driving has contributed to 15 per cent of fatal car crashes, compared with around 11 per cent in 2015, according to Manitoba RCMP statistics. More people were killed in crashes this year -- 110 versus 80 in 2015 -- and increasingly, cellphone use is to blame, said RCMP Sgt. Mark Hume, commander of the Westman traffic services unit.
"I think the big thing is it's just becoming more and more prevalent. Cellphones are not going away, they're drastically increasing," he said. "Phones are just being used that much more, so it's a problem that's going to continue to get worse, not better, so we have to take some different approaches to try to make sure that people aren't using it while they're driving."
Since provincial laws against distracted driving came into effect in 2010 -- they now carry some of the strictest penalties in Canada with five demerits and a $200 fine -- drivers haven't necessarily put down their phones, but they're more likely to try to avoid getting caught, Hume said. They'll hide the phone below the steering wheel and gaze into their laps, and the challenge for police is to spot them before they do any damage.
"We just have to see them like anybody else would. The traffic units have a lot of unmarked vehicles so we can get right up beside them without them realizing who we are," he said.
"It's difficult because we need to see down into the vehicle, so that's why we use these other approaches."
Better views from transit buses
Those "other approaches" have involved officers in some police forces peering down on passing cars from overpasses and pedestrian walkways, blending in with workers on construction sites and -- as seen in some Ontario cities -- riding public transit to get a better view.
Manitoba RCMP made headlines in the spring when a plainclothes officer in Steinbach, with a black hoodie pulled over his head, stood at an intersection holding a cardboard sign. In scrawled black marker, the sign read: "I'm not homeless. RCMPolice looking for distracted drivers."
It was a successful tactic, Hume said, allowing police to ticket drivers who were more interested in their phones than the sign.
"It definitely worked, and I'm sure we'll be doing more of that in the future."
Meanwhile, the RCMP is turning to technology to help weed out distracted drivers. As of late December, officers were testing out a new, high-powered scope -- similar to what a sniper would use -- that would allow police to spot and photograph distracted drivers from 500 to 700 metres away.
"It's like more powerful binoculars with a camera attached to it, so we can take pictures (of drivers) either without their seat belts or with cellphones in their hands," Hume said, adding if the equipment makes it through the testing stage, there are plans to purchase it for several RCMP traffic units in the province.
Within city limits, officers don't hop aboard transit buses to catch distracted drivers. But they managed to hand out about 4,586 distracted-driving tickets so far this year. That number has remained fairly consistent, according to the most recent figures available in Winnipeg Police Service annual reports. There were 4,549 tickets handed out in 2014 and 4,555 in 2013.
'People are more willing to break the law to text than to drink and drive'
"We do not currently use transit buses to spot cellphone use, nor do we plan to in the future. We have other methods that we utilize," WPS Staff Sgt. Rob Riffel said.
Police have the tools they need to catch distracted drivers, but those drivers "just need to quit doing this," especially with so many hands-free techology available, Hume said.
"They have that mentality these days that it's never going to happen to me, whether it be a crash or whether it be getting caught," he said.
"I think a large percentage of the population still do it and they think that they're doing it quickly and it's not going to hurt anybody, or they're doing it at a red light when they're stopped or wherever it may be. I think people are more willing to break the law to text than to drink and drive... but are not realizing that texting and driving might be just as deadly."
An average of 28 people are killed each year because of distracted driving on Manitoba roads, according to MPI's statistics, and about 2,500 distracted drivers are involved in collisions annually. While the provincial legislation only deals with hand-held cellphone use while driving, MPI has a broader definition of distracted driving that can also include distracts such as eating while driving or having an animated conversation with a passenger.
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.