Are stronger laws the solution to curbing distracted driving?

A Quebec coroner's recommendation for stricter laws against distracted driving has renewed debate about the best way to curb cell phone use in vehicles.

Quebec coroner's call for making cell phone use while driving a criminal offence spurs debate

Drivers engaged in text messaging on a cell phone are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash, or near-crash event, compared with non-distracted drivers, according to a recent U.S. study. (The Associated Press)

A Quebec coroner's recommendation to amend the Criminal Code to include a law against distracted driving has renewed debate about the best way to curb cell phone use in vehicles. 

Michel Ferland wants the federal government to make driving while texting or talking on the phone a criminal offence in the case of death or injury, much like drunk driving.

Ferland also wants police to have more power to seize information from the driver's phone to prove their suspicions in court, and he suggested new car models could include a function to scramble cell phone signals in cars. 

Another Quebec coroner recently went even further, suggesting an outright ban on cell phones in vehicles should be under consideration. 

The problem is clear enough: drivers engaged in text messaging on a cell phone are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash, or near-crash event, compared with non-distracted drivers, according to a recent U.S. study.

Cell phone use while driving is currently only considered a violation of the Highway Safety Code. 

All provinces in Canada, however, now have bans in place on using cellphones or hand-held electronic devices while driving.

Depending on the legislation, penalties can include hefty fines and, in many cases, demerit points.

Laws or attitudes?

Not everyone agrees stiffer punishment for cell phone users is the solution.

Lewis Smith, a spokesman for the Canada Safety Council, said amending the Criminal Code would be "overkill."

"We really need to focus on changing attitudes first," Smith told CBC Montreal's Daybreak on Tuesday.

He said the Criminal Code already addresses dangerous driving in section 249, which prosecutors could use to target cell phone users. 

While Smith acknowledged distracted driving is "a critical issue," he said stronger laws could be problematic.

He gave the example of a driver who checks his phone at a red light, which he said isn't acceptable but shouldn't be considered a criminal offence. 

Smith added that scrambling a cell phone signal would also create potential dangers of its own, making it difficult to communicate in emergencies.

Shifting tides

In his view, education and greater public awareness of the problem is key.

He likened cell phone use to seatbelts, which at first were widely rejected by car users but are now accepted as necessary by the vast majority of drivers. 

Ferland's recommendations were made in a report into the death of Jimmy Brunet-Rotondo, a 28-year-old truck driver who rammed into the truck ahead of him on Highway 13 in Laval. 

He believes Brunet-Rotondo was distracted at the time of the crash.

There were no tire marks on the road and a witness said Brunet-Rotondo didn't brake until moments before impact, which "strongly suggests he didn't have his eyes on the road and was distracted by other things," the report said. 

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