Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ban distractions in the driver’s seat

Ontario is set to ban cell phone use (and other distractions) by drivers. Normally I’m against government interference with private activities like, for example, wearing seatbelts and cycle helmets. It’s none of their damn business and such bans grease the slope.

But I make exceptions where other people’s activities may endanger my life and property. So I support banning the use of cell phones and other portable distractions (including wolfing down Big Macs and juggling hot coffee) by drivers whilst driving. Since so many people do these things banning them often meets with resistance. For example, a popular local radio host once opined (quoting from memory): "anyone who can’t handle a car while using a cell phone shouldn’t be on the road." Now there’s a certain logic to that and I tend to agree - any licensed driver should be capable of driving and phoning under most normal circumstances.

But there’s the problem. Under most normal, benign circumstances people get away with all sorts of behaviour. Ninety-nine-point-nine-nine percent of the time careless driving habits don’t result in a crash. It’s that .001% that gets you. In a quickly evolving, hazardous situation a tiny difference in a driver’s attention and reaction time can make a huge difference. Within the last two months I experienced two such incidents. It was obviously a bad couple of months:

(1) driving home on a city street, nearing my turnoff I started signaling a left turn about a block ahead of the turn and a short time later started braking. There was an oncoming car so I had to wait - foot on the brake. Then I heard a horrible screeching of tires behind me and in my rear-view mirror was this big black pickup truck sliding towards me with his trailer whip-sawing side-to-side behind him. I thought that was it. All I could do was floor the gas pedal and try to avoid being rear-ended. Luckily, I did, but not by much. Now, that idiot truck driver had to have been distracted. My tail-lights and brake-lights were functioning (I checked later) and he had lots of time to see them so he’d have had no excuse. Perhaps he was on his cell-phone, I don’t know, but that kind of distraction would easily have been enough to explain his last-second panic braking and locked-wheel slide.

(2) on a city street again, the traffic light turned yellow and, as I often do, I proceeded through the intersection. A car in the intersection, in the on-coming turn lane, was signaling a left turn. I wasn’t quite half way through the intersection when the oncoming driver decided she had to beat the yellow light and, like a squirrel, turned right across my path. Only because I was fast enough to hit my brakes, tires screeching, did I avoid hitting her. All I can say is that if I’d been the slightest bit distracted, by anything, there’d have been a crash.

So go ahead, Ontario, ban the use of all those electronic do-dads in the driver’s seat. And I hope BC soon follows suit.

Update: Blue Like You has lots of commentary on this subject.


Joanne (True Blue) said...

I wonder if it will apply to police as well.

JR said...

Never! They're among the worst examples on the road - a law unto themselves.

Spitfire said...

bus drivers and cab drivers too! Because if we all have to suffer with a ban, there should be no exceptions (unlike that do-not-call list).

JR said...

Yup! Especially cabbies. Of course, like cops, they often break many of the existing rules, so it's not too likely that they'll observe the new ones.

Anonymous said...

I am in total agreement with the ban on cell phones in motor vehicles. I see far too many morons zipping through mall parking lots in monster SUVs, barely able to see over the steering wheel, with a cell phone in one hand, and a coffee or Slurpee in the other. What I don't agree with is a new law. As far as I know most provinces have a law against driving with undo care and attention. Just enforce it! Don't give the shysters another excuse to drag this before the courts as a violation of charter rights.

JR said...

Powell, Yes. I think that's true. We shouldn't need yet another law. But it seems that unless there's an explicit law spelling out each example of "undue care and attention" either the people won't pay attention or the police won't take it seriously or the defence lawyers will fight it and/or the prosecutors and judges won't uphold it.