Beyond cellphones: how far should distracted driving laws go?

A woman who thumbs her nose at repeated distracted driving violations has enraged British Columbians. But will the case persuade the public to take up some of the more drastic suggestions currently on the table as the province reviews its laws?

Feedback provided to provincial review of driving laws includes calls for ban on hand-free devices

Four-year-old Alexa Middelaer died when she was struck by an impaired driver in Delta, B.C., in 2008. (CBC)

It's sad to think that only a high-profile tragedy is going to change attitudes towards distracted driving.

Intellectually, we all know we shouldn't talk on a smart phone, check email or text behind the wheel. But anyone who has spent more than about 10 minutes in traffic has seen it happen, despite all the warnings, despite all the laws.

And how many of us have made exceptions to our own 'zero-tolerance' policies when faced with a buzzing device and a needy child, anxious partner or impatient boss on the other end?

Carol Berner was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in relation to Alexa Middelaer's death. The case sparked a crackdown on impaired driving. (CBC)

The comparison gets made to impaired driving all the time. And statistics suggest distracted driving has now — in fact — surpassed drunken driving in B.C. as a leading cause of car crash fatalities.

But can you imagine a situation in which someone with more than a dozen impaired driving charges is still allowed on the road?

Police in Vancouver and Richmond are currently warning about a woman in her early 40s who has racked up 14 distracted driving violations in the past five years. They want laws that would see her banned from driving.

Impaired driving still happens, but it is socially unacceptable in a way distracted driving obviously still is not. In part, that's because of a series of tragedies through the years etching the names and faces of victims into our hearts.

Something about the death of Alexa Middelaer, however, sparked action.

The four-year-old died in 2008 when a woman named Carol Berner decided to get behind the wheel of a car after having three glasses of wine on a Saturday afternoon.

The little girl loved purple. And from the prisoner's dock, from first appearance to the day she was sentenced, Berner faced a wall of purple worn by Alexa's family, friends and the many strangers who turned up in growing numbers as outrage at the story spread.

Berner got two and a half years. But frustration from the case carried through to an overhaul of B.C.'s drunk driving laws.

A complete ban?

The province is in the middle of a similar review of distracted driving laws at the moment.

Public Safety Minister Mike Morris is expected to announce the results this spring, but input from the public consultation is online right now.

And some of the letters from stakeholders are suggesting solutions that would go well beyond what most drivers might imagine.

B.C. Public Safety Minister MIke Morris is expected to announce tougher distracted driving rules this spring. (CBC/Marc Trudeau)

A complete ban on the use of hands-free devices while driving — not just handheld. Including interactive and GPS devices among those considered distracting. And adding non-electronic distractions to the list of banned activities.

"We recommend the adoption of legislation which prohibits any activity not related to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with the vehicle's safe operation," writes Fraser Health Authority medical health officer Lisa Mu.

Her submission mentions research indicating that "reaching to tune the radio or operating a CD player can be more distracting than cell phone use." And how about the Apple Watch?

In his letter, B.C. Injury Research and Prevention Unit director Ian Pike singles out the iWatch along with GPS and other entertainment systems "considered standard accessories in newer vehicles" as potential distractions.

"While some members of the public perceive a limited ban on hand-held mobile phone use as reasonable due to the visual and physical distraction, this strategy only begins to address the larger issue of distracted driving due to electronic devices," Pike writes.

"This limited approach may lead to a false (sense of) security on the part of the public and tacitly endorses the use of hands-free devices."

Clayton Pecknold, assistant deputy minister and director of police services with the ministry of justice also submitted a letter citing input from traffic officers.

Pecknold says police want a "clearer and more encompassing definition of what constitutes an electronic device to capture emerging technologies, including body-worn technology and in-vehicle telematics."

I didn't know what that meant either. But basically, it sounds like GPS.

Pecknold also says we need to identify activities such as "personal grooming; eating; unrestrained animals in the front seats" as driver distractions.

'Imagine for a moment ...'

The comments from the public are fascinating.

Someone left paraplegic "thanks to the 1990s version of a distracted driver" who was looking for a cassette tape and didn't see traffic stopped ahead. Intensive care nurses and police officers who witness first hand the physical carnage caused by distracted driving.

It's clear we all want to tackle distracted driving, but the question raised is how far are we willing to go? How would car manufacturers feel about restricting the use of all hands-free devices? How would you feel about relying on old-fashioned maps to find your destination?

Even B.C.'s so-called 'tough' drunk driving legislation leaves room for uncertainty. And that's the problem.

Why does zero-tolerance for impaired driving not result in zero-tolerance for the substances which impair us? How many drinks is 0.05, anyway? Surely the easiest way to settle that question would be to make the decision for us.

Most likely, B.C. will toughen up penalties and expand distracted driving to include things like brushing your teeth or putting on makeup, as they do in Alberta. It's already against the law to press buttons on a GPS device while driving. And technically, it's against the law to look at one as well.

RCMP officers have suggested the province needs to start enforcing the rules it already has. And paying for overtime so officers can show up in court to make tickets stick.

But as for those more sweeping suggestions. Are we ready yet?

"This isn't a trivial issue. People are dying and being maimed, and the cost to society as a whole is enormous," one comment reads.

"Imagine for a moment your wife, husband, child or grandchild killed or injured by a distracted driver. BC needs to lead on this issue. NOW."

You don't need to imagine anything. Alexa Middelaer's family has already lived it.

About the Author

Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.