Police and public grapple with bad habits and new laws

Calgary police have handed out a total of 1,456 tickets for distracted driving since the provincial law came into effect. The law, which prohibits drivers from using electronic devices while in operation of a motor vehicle, came into effect Sept. 1, 2011.

Despite early adherence to the new law, police said drivers are starting to drift back into old habits and beginning to form potentially deadlier ones.

“I know, myself, I’ve hopped out at a red light and had a look. Sure enough, he’s got his cellphone out and he’s reading a text message,” said Const. Jim Lebedeff of the Calgary Police Service’s traffic education division.

Lebedeff said has noticed drivers are trying to get sneakier about using their electronic devices, despite attempts to educate them about the dangers of distracted driving.

“When the law first came into place, I knew it wasn’t going to be a quick fix,” Lebedeff said. “The electronic age is here and it’s ingrained. It’s like when seatbelts first came into place, it’s going to be a constant reminder.”

A study performed by American-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed that distracted-driving bans may actually lead to an increase in collisions.

While there hasn’t been any indicator of that happening within Calgary, police have seen some potentially dangerous behaviour emerging.

“What I’ve noticed is people looking down when they’re stopped at lights or when they’re driving,” Lebedeff said. “I’ve been driving for a long time and you don’t tend to stare at your crotch when you’re driving.“Most people don’t have four arms,” said Const. Jim Lebedeff. Despite the lack of appendages, Calgary driving habits are becoming increasingly dangerous as they try to avoid detection with distracted driving.
Photo illustration by: Eva Colmenero

“They’re trying to do it below the dash level and they’re thinking they won’t be noticed. But when you’re seeing heads bobbing down, other than falling asleep or having a medical reason for it, chances are good you’re looking at your cellphone.

“It’s a bad habit, a really dangerous one. I think that’s one of the things we’d really like to hit home.”

Although the law was meant to reduce collisions and make roads safer, the fact that drivers are getting more reckless about electronic device usage could mean the law may be resulting in more collisions.

Lebedeff’s concerns are supported by a study done by the University of Glasgow. It found there was an increased chance of collisions when people’s eyes were focused downwards on digital screens, but decreased when their attention was directed upwards.

 “I’ve been driving for a long time and you don’t tend to stare at your crotch when you’re driving.”
— Const. Jim Lebedeff

A statement on the Canadian Association of Emergency Physician’s website cited a study where subjects drove while performing increasingly complex cognitive tasks.

They found that drivers had difficulty driving when only being asked simple true and false questions.

When more complex “verbal distracters” that more closely mimicked dialling and talking on a cellphone were introduced, driving got increasingly worse.

Furthermore, the Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine’s website says that in cognitive studies, a driver’s response time increases as more factors are introduced.

With drivers taking added steps to try and continue texting while avoiding a ticket, and with police facing difficulties in handing out tickets, the biggest issue with distracted driving may be changing public attitudes.

Const. Mike Hagen, also of CPS’s traffic education division, has stated that there are plans to be working with the public to try and educate them, including an initiative in the spring to have students view a simulation of an accident that was caused by distracted driving.

While not fond of the word “crackdown,” Hagen did note that “February was a month where we were actively looking for distracted drivers,” primarily due to Calgary drivers getting complacent.

tpresiloski@cjournal.ca