Driving and Dialing
CBC News Online | June 3, 2004
Cellphones in the car: are they safe?
May 8, 2001. It was a lightly overcast day in Pickering, Ontario, just east of Toronto. Richard Schewe was behind the wheel of his pickup
truck. His two-year-old daughter, Mikaela, was his passenger.
Schewe was talking on his cellphone. Ahead of him, was a level railway crossing. He didn't notice the flashing red lights.
Moments later, Schewe and his daughter were dead. Schewe's truck lay crushed under a rail car.
The accident revived calls for legislation banning the use of Cellphones in cars.
At least 14 countries have banned drivers from using cellphones: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Chile, Finland, Israel, Italy,
Japan, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa and Spain. Some have exempted hands-free units from their bans.
New York state became the first one in the U.S. to ban the use of handheld cellphones by drivers. Governor George Pataki signed the legislation
June 28, 2001.
The law came into effect Nov.1.
First-time violators face a $100 fine, a second conviction nabs a $200 fine, while subsequent violations cost $500. The law does allow for emergency
calls, speaker phones and CB radios.
A few cities and counties in the U.S. already have bans, while at least 39 states are considering similar legislation.
As of April 1, 2003, the use of a handheld phone while driving is prohibited in Newfoundland. Drivers would only be allowed to talk on handheld
cellphones while their cars are parked.
Fines range from $45 to $180 for drivers caught breaking the ban. Drivers can also get demerit points.
British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia and Ontario have considered bans or restrictions.
Alberta premier Ralph Klein says he wouldn't mind having cellphone legislation in his province. A private members bill to ban cellphone use while
driving was voted down April 8, 2002. Klein says his government should give it second thought.
He suggested the Alberta Traffic Safety Board could come up with recommendations for members of the legislature to consider.
"If you really need to answer that phone, just pull over on the side of the road," says Lyne Fortin of the Canadian Automobile Association.
Fortin says the CAA doesn't support a ban because the studies don't show enough of a connection between cellphone use and accidents.
"Cellphones are one of many distractions."
That view is echoed by the Canadian Wireless Telecom Association.
"This is an issue of driver safety and not only cellphone use on its own," says Marc Choma of the CWTA.
What the studies have found
The New England Journal of Medicine published a report in 1997 by Dr. Don Redelmeier of the University of Toronto. The study found
that talking on a cellphone while driving quadrupled a person's risk of an accident.
Redelmeier recently repeated his call to ban cellphone use by drivers, saying he actually underestimated the risks four years ago.
The Canadian Medical Association joined Redelmeier in calling for a ban.
An editorial in the association's magazine CMAJ, argued that drivers "who fail to exercise good judgment must be regulated
to do so."
In his 1997 study, Redelmeier surveyed serious crashes involving 699 cars. The researcher now says his study didn't take into account
other distractions on top of talking on the cellphone.
Chuck Hurley of the National Safety Council in the United States likens the cellphones and driving issue to impaired driving.
His view, though, is not echoed by the American Automobile Association.
The AAA funded a study by the University of North Carolina of 284,000 drivers involved in accidents.
The findings suggest drivers are more distracted when they change the radio station or insert a CD than when they use their Cellphones.
The university used data from 1995 through 1999 and included 32,303 vehicles.
"Driver distraction represents a range of problems far more encompassing than talking on a mobile phone: rubbernecking, adjusting the radio,
attending to children...eating," said Mark Lee Edwards, managing director of AAA's Traffic Safety to a congressional committee May 9, 2001.
The AAA urged a national campaign on awareness and for more studies to be done. It stopped short of asking for a ban.
"Drivers need to keep their eyes on the road, and their minds on driving. No government edict or regulation can achieve that result,"
Two other Canadian studies have raised questions about the safety of Cellphones in the car.
One by the University of Montreal included 36,000 people. The study found if you're using a cellphone while driving, you are 38 per cent more likely to get into an accident than if you're not using your cellphone.
"Having a complicated telephone conversation is a demanding activity for the brain...depending on how stressful the conversation is,"
says Urs Maag of the Transportation Safety Laboratory at the university.
Maag, though, is reluctant to draw a direct link, saying his study is based on circumstantial evidence.
Another study, by the Insurance Bureau of British Columbia, came to similar conclusions.
Forty-one drivers were a given a course to drive and at the same time, researchers asked them questions through a speaker installed in the car.
Drivers did well on simple tasks like stopping for a red light, but when it came to a more complicated task such as making a left turn, drivers
were twice as likely to make a potentially dangerous turn.
Researchers say drivers using cellphones have a tougher time navigating complex manoeuvres.
"Time sharing and multi-tasking does not come easily to the human brain," says Dr. John Vavrick, the researcher in charge of the study.
In February 2001, New Democrat MP Bill Blaikie introduced a private member's bill that would make it a crime to drive while talking
on a cellphone, except in an emergency. So far, there's been no movement on the proposed legislation.
In Ontario, Conservative MPP John O'Toole of Durham, introduced a similar bill in the province's legislature. That was followed by the New
Democrats in Nova Scotia, who introduced a private member's bill that called for fines of $128 for drivers using cellphones.
In most cases, provincial governments have called for more studies, public input and information from police and health organizations.
In Ontario, the transportation department has said there's no need for a ban because current careless driving laws would apply to people
who cause accidents while using cellphones.
Drivers can be fined up to $325 and lose six demerit points in Ontario for careless driving. Courts can also suspend a driver's licence for
up to 30 days for a careless driving conviction.
"Generally, (there) is a lot of talk, private member's bills, but it's not going anywhere," says John Vavrik who conducted the driving study
at the Insurance Corporation of B.C.
Safety Council argues against a ban
The Canada Safety Council argues a ban on Cellphones in cars would be irresponsible.
Council President Emile Thérien says there is no empirical evidence linking cellphone use to collisions.
He says most studies are long on anecdotes but short on facts.
"Cellphones are a distraction. But so is coffee, screaming children, adults quarrelling, and reading the newspaper. Are you going to
ban them as well?"
Instead, Thérien says strict enforcement of existing careless driving laws would save more lives than a cellphone ban.
As far as he's concerned, the problem lies with the driver.
More studies are on their way. Ford Motors has launched a three-year study into driver distraction and so has the National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration in the U.S.
The issue itself is getting more complex as automakers are poised to install Internet services and other electronic devices into cars.
Harvard University's Center for Risk Analysis has come up with its own study saying the risk of being killed by a driver talking on a cellphone
is 1.5 in one million. That compares to a 17.6 in one million chance of being killed by a drunk driver. The study was funded by AT&T Wireless.
"Well, there aren't hard and fast statistics about a number of things," says Dr. Ian Smith of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association.
"People made those (kind of) comments before there was seat belt legislation (and) they made the same comments about smoking."
In the case of cellphones and driving, what all the parties do agree on is one thing: driving and dialing don't mix and it is up to drivers
to stop doing it.
"It's as simple as that: don't talk and drive," says the CAA's Lyne Fortin.
What distracts a driver? |
Outside person, object or event: 29.4%
Adjusting radio/cassette/CD: 11.4%.
Other occupant: 10.9%.
Moving object in vehicle: 4.3%
Other device/object: 2.9%
Adjusting vehicle controls: 2.8%
Eating and/or drinking: 1.7%
Using/dialing cellphone: 1.5%
Smoking: 0.9 %
Other distractions: 25.6%
Source: University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center