They banned handheld devices, but are we safer?

December 2, 2009

Guelph Mercury, 02/12/09cellphone

Why is everybody suddenly driving with their heads down, staring at their crotches?

No reason, officer. But I can tell you this much. We are not hiding the fact we are still texting. No sir.

Ontario’s new handheld device law for drivers is well-intentioned. It’s for our safety, and who can argue with that? The government says driver distraction is a factor in about one in five accidents on our province’s roads, and there is no reason not to believe them. Too bad there’s no similar statistics for stupidity.

Starting in February, if we’re caught on our phones or iPods while driving, we risk a $500 fine. It’s similar to bans introduced in Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and those planned in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Every province seems to be getting on board. But are these bans actually doing what they’re supposed to do?

Plenty of people aren’t convinced a ban on handheld cellphones and music players while allowing hands-free versions is making our roads any safer. Studies, including major reviews by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the United States, have shown drivers are four times more likely to cause an accident if they’re talking on the phone—regardless of whether they’re holding the phone or not.

The problem is when we have a conversation on a telephone, people often become engrossed in it, and lose focus on their driving. The law doesn’t take this into account.

“Once a conversation begins, we don’t see a difference between hand-held and hands-free,” Adrian Lund, president of the insurance institute that did one of the studies, was reported as saying.

In the U.S., the insurance industry is so convinced that handless sets aren’t any safer that they’re offering discounts only to drivers who sign up for call-blocking services that disable their phone while they’re driving.

Ontario’s hand-held ban may even backfire, with drivers going to greater lengths trying to hide the fact they’re talking or texting. And for police, it’s just another thing they need to enforce, and a difficult one at that. Aside from riding in ladder trucks up and down the highway, how reasonably can they be expected to peer into our cars as we drive, ensuring we’re doing nothing but that?

All we can say for sure about this handheld ban is it has been a boom for makers of handless gadgets, like the Bluetooth. No one was more thrilled about the new law than these businesses. They ought to send a truckload of their products to Queen’s Park for Christmas with a huge thank you card.

If it’s distractions we’re legislating, what about the flashy billboards that line our expressways? What about drinking hot coffee while driving? Or switching stations on the radio? Or re-programming your global positioning system? All of these legitimate distractions remain perfectly legal under the law.

We can’t reasonably ban all wireless communication on the road. For plenty of businesses, it’s a big part of the job and it affects their productivity. It’s unreasonable to ask companies not to talk to their drivers on the road, and vice-versa.

The problem is, as plenty have said before, you can’t legislate common sense.

And this ban doesn’t change the fact drivers can still be charged under dangerous or careless driving laws that we already had. They carry real consequences—fines of up to $1,000, six demerit points, a driver’s licence suspension and possible jail time. This was and still is the best penalty for distracted drivers who truly endanger others’ lives.

But that doesn’t seem to matter. We’ve got a new law, and we all pretend to follow it. But is it making our roads any safer? Maybe. But maybe it isn’t.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based freelance writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at, and past columns can be read at

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