Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Cellphones, seatbelts and saving young drivers' lives

VICTORIA - What's wrong with saying to people in their first two years of driving that they shouldn't talk on a cellphone while they're trying to get off a highway or make it through a school zone?
The Canadian Automobile Association wants provinces to look at laws to bar new drivers from talking on the cellphone or fiddling with their iPods when they're behind the wheel.
The distraction is the last thing an inexperienced driver needs, says the association. Police could keep an eye on drivers with an 'N' for novice on their car and issue tickets to new drivers using cellphones.
Solicitor General John Les isn't keen on the idea. It's more important to improve driver education, he says.
It's unclear why the government can't do both. Few people would argue that distraction is a problem for any driver, with the risks rising for the less experienced. The moments it takes to find a ringing cellphone amid the front-seat debris and fumble with the tiny buttons to answer can bring a crash closer. Driver experience will be one factor in avoiding disaster in that kind of situation.
The CAA cites a U.S. study, that found distraction of all kinds - from cellphone use to squabbling kids to managing that burger and fries - played a role in 80 per cent of crashes. (ICBC puts the number much lower, saying only nine per cent of serious and fatal crashes are caused by driver distraction, with cellphones a tiny factor.)
The anecdotal evidence closer to home is convincing. In May a new driver in Chilliwack, talking on her cellphone, drifted on to the shoulder and crashed into a cyclist, killing the mother of two.
The real problem with the law is that it wouldn't be enforced. Hard-pressed police are juggling a tonne of priorities, with the public expecting action on all of them at once. Any law relies on two factors for its effectiveness - the likely penalty, and the chances of actually being caught. If enforcement is non-existent - think of the bicycle helmet law these days - then the penalties are meaningless.
But there's still value. Like the bicycle helmet law, a ban on cellphone use for inexperienced drivers would send a message that the behaviour is dangerous. It would be available when police encountered especially risky behaviour. About 40 countries, including Australia, Britain, Israel, Italy, South America, and Spain and several U.S. states have introduced bans. So has Newfoundland.
Les isn't likely to change his mind.
So instead of a cellphone ban, here is a safety proposal -also aimed at new drivers - that should be easy for government to embrace.
There's one common factor in virtually every serious crash involving new drivers. Not cellphone use, or speed, or impaired driving, although the latter two are also tragically common.
The almost universal factor is failure to use seatbelts. Vancouver Island's crash team looked at a string of crashes involving young drivers in its first months. And while there was a lot of risk-taking, every one had common element. "The lack of seatbelts is absolute -- there wasn't one crash we went to where seatbelts had been used," police said.
Why? New drivers are often young and consider themselves invulnerable. They don't understand the seriousness of driving. And they know that there is little chance of getting a ticket for not using a seatbelt and facing the $138 fine.
The answer is simple. Make seatbelt use effectively mandatory for drivers 'New' or 'Learner' status. Instead of a fine, impose a 30-day licence suspension. New drivers not using a seatbelt don't understand the risks of the road. Give them time to consider them. Make enforcement a priority.
At the least, we'll keep some people alive.
At best, the very act of putting on a seatbelt will remind people each time they start their cars that driving is an activity with some significant risks that calls for care and caution.
Footnote: The government could also make failing to wear a seatbelt an offence that carries penalty points for all drivers, like most other infractions. ICBC estimates about 90-per-cent of drivers use seatbelts, but a Transport Canada survey in 2002 found that in smaller communities in B.C. seatbelt use was about 80 per cent, eighth among provinces and territories.

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