Texting and Driving

The experiment was simple.  17 drivers were recruited, all between 17-24 years of age.  They were put in a driving simulator for two test runs.  In the first, they were to drive normally, without any distractions.  In the second, they were to complete a number of tasks with their cell phones, including reading and writing texts.  In both cases, their reaction times were measured.

The results were astounding.

The driver’s reaction times had dropped by 35% when writing a text message.  This was almost triple the result of studies involving drunk driving (12%), and 14% higher than the result of studies involving drivers high on cannabis (21%).  To make matters worse, while the drivers had slowed down while texting in an effort to remain safe, they had also developed a tendency to unknowingly drift into the lanes beside them.

This study, conducted in 2008 by Britain’s RAC Foundation, has since been confirmed by additional studies around the world.  One, performed by Car and Driver magazine, found that depending on speed, texting drivers often needed far more space to stop and react than drunk drivers.

While drinking remains the most well-known dangerous impairment to driving, it has been on the decline for years.  Instead, distracting driving has now become the most frequent cause of auto accidents and personal injuries.  By 2010, distracting driving was a factor in a full 80% of collisions, and 65% of near crashes.  The mere act of using one’s phone while driving makes the driver three to four times more likely to be involved in an accident.  And, for the last seven years, distracted driving has caused more fatalities on Ontario’s roads than drunk driving.

Part of the problem is that using one’s phone while driving has very little social stigma (the first mobile phones were, in fact, car phones, first appearing in the 1940s).  And, since alcohol or some impairing substance is not involved in using a cell phone, many people don’t realize the degree to which they are impaired by the distraction, feeling that it’s just another form of multitasking that they can handle.

To try to curb this rising level of distracted driving fatalities during auto accidents, the Ontario government outlawed using handheld devices while driving for anything but making 911 calls in 2009.  In June of this year, it updated the Highway Traffic Act to increase the fines for distracted drivers from a range of $60-$500 to a range of $300-$1,000, and added three demerit points to the penalty, along with convictions and escalating license suspensions for novice drivers.  In cases where distracted driving causes endangerment, the driver can be charged with careless driving, with penalties including six demerit points, fines up to $2,000 and/or a 6 month jail sentence, and a license suspension of up to 2 years.

This does not mean that all cell phone or device use is forbidden while driving – according to texting and driving laws in Ontario it is legal to use hands-free devices, such as:

  • Cell phones with a hands-free mode and an earpiece, headset, or Bluetooth.  If one wants to dial, one must be able to do it by voice commands – outside of turning on the hands-free mode, the phone must be mounted or secured, and scrolling through contact lists or dialling numbers is illegal.
  • A GPS screen mounted on the dashboard or window that does not block the driver’s view.  Further, the coordinates must be entered into the GPS before the vehicle starts moving.
  • A portable media player, so long as it is plugged into the vehicle’s sound system, and the playlist is activated before one starts driving.
  • Screens and devices built into the car for safety and operating the vehicle.  This does not include entertainment devices such as television screens.

The one exception to these rules is emergency 911 calls, which are always legal using handheld devices.

In a number of ways, this is a new and evolving landscape.  We are still learning how human beings use and interact with modern technology, and discovering the implications of these interactions.  As mentioned above, many people remain unaware of just how badly they are impaired by the distraction of using their phones while driving, or even walking.  Some cities have had to test out padded lampposts due to pedestrians walking into them while using their phones, and distracted pedestrians have stumbled into objects, fallen onto train tracks, and even walked unawares into traffic.

In the end, the best way to stay safe – and clear of the law – is to pay attention to the road, concentrate on driving instead of texting or using your phone, and just not allow yourself to be distracted in the first place.
Author Robert B. Marks is a writer, editor, and researcher in Kingston, Ontario, who spent several years working as a writer and editor for the Queen’s University Faculty of Law.

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