Calgary Police Traffic Unit says despite new legislation, drivers refuse to unplug


Like many Calgarians, Madelaine Vanderwerff found herself delayed for about 15 minutes in a traffic jam on 14th Street N.W. when her child’s daycare called to find out where she was. 

Vanderwerff answered so the daycare staff would know she was on her way. Just then, a police officer on a bike told her to pull over. He issued her a distracted driving ticket for $287.

“The cop was pretty ornery, but there were about four other cars who were directed to pull over and many of the drivers were arguing with the police officer, so I couldn’t really blame him for being terse,” says Vanderwerff. “I deserved it! I was operating a vehicle and didn’t have a hands-free device when answering my phone.”

Staff Sgt. Paul Stacey with the Calgary Police Traffic Unit says that although texting is one of the most common mistakes drivers make behind the wheel, holding and talking on cellphones is another popular offense.

Stacey has heard some unusual distracted driving stories over the years from other traffic officers, including one where a man was talking into a Tim Hortons cup.

“The fellow kept putting the cup up to his face and was talking. He was finally pulled over and it was discovered that the guy had a telephone in the Tim Hortons cup and was talking on it. I guess he thought that if he had it in the cup it would fool the police, but in this case it didn’t. So there’s a $287 ticket for talking into a coffee cup.”

DSC 5792editsAlberta Transportation states that using hand-held communication devices while driving is one of the most common distractions for drivers. These drivers are three times more likely to be in a crash.
Photo by Melissa Kadey
From Sept. 1, 2011, to March 21, 2012 — the first year distracted driving legislation came into effect — there were 8,345 convictions in Alberta. Between April 1, 2014, and March 31, 2015, that number grew to 27,417.

In January the provincial government changed the distracted driving law so that it now includes three license demerit points as well as a $287 fine.

“I’m really lucky that it was last summer, and before the bill was passed to start to issuing demerit points for distracted driving,” says Vanderwerff.

Stacey says police have not seen a decrease in the number of tickets being issued since losing demerit points was added to the distracted driving legislation. He adds that people are seemingly becoming used to the $287 fine, and although losing demerits is fairly new it will not affect people until they start to see an impact on their driver’s licenses (becoming subject to a suspension) or until the insurance company raises rates because a driver is classified as high-risk (due to the distracted driving tickets).

“That’s where we’ll start to see the impact of demerits, but because it’s relatively new, the impact hasn’t been felt yet.”

Despite the growing number of distracted driving convictions, Stacey believes the penalties are adequate and explains that there was a similar situation when our current seatbelt legislation was introduced in the 1980s.

State Farm InfographiceditsAccording to research conducted by insurance companies and road safety groups, teens are among the fastest growing demographics for distracted driving, potentially due to young peoples’ close relationship with technology. Graphic courtesy of State Farm Insurance

“Initially there was a lot of resistance to it, people weren’t used to putting on their seatbelts, and had a million excuses about why they shouldn’t have to wear seatbelts,” says Stacey.

“It took pretty much a whole generation before we got to the point we’re at now with the seatbelt issue. I mean now in urban Alberta, it’s about a 95 per cent compliance rate. And it took a long time to get to that point. But back to distracted driving, I think the penalties are accurate; it’s just going to have to be a cultural change.”

Vanderwerff has since paid the ticket, but she has some apprehensions regarding the “sneak up” tactics of the Calgary Police Service. She says it felt as though the officer was waiting for drivers to pull out their phones in heavy traffic, when they perhaps thought it was safe to do so because their vehicle wasn’t moving.

“There were many drivers who were pulled over that day, so it sort of operated like a distracted driving check-stop,” suggests Vanderwerff.

Her concerns with distracted driving are primarily around how police officers are rolling out this initiative. Officers are catching people texting while stuck at a standstill in traffic jams, but Vanderwerff wonders how many people on their phones driving at speeds of 70 km/h or higher get ticketed.

DSC 5785editsAccording to Alberta Transportation, distracted driving restricts drivers from using hand-held cellphones (even when stopped at a red light), entering information into a GPS device, personal grooming, and more. Photo by Melissa KadeyShe also believes that distracted driving laws should be clarified. She notes that hand-held devices, personal grooming products, and other items are targeted, but is curious where the line is being drawn when drivers are also consuming beverages, and puffing on cigarettes or e-cigarettes.

“I drove by some guy with a three foot tall hookah [pipe] the other day, packing it with tobacco — or something else — and it was placed in the console between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat. He kept messing around with this thing and wasn’t paying attention to the road at all.

“What happens if a smoker drops a cigarette in their vehicle while driving?” Vanderwerff asked. “Or what if your kid drops a toy while they are in the back seat?”

Stacey says that since there has been so much public attention around distracted driving, it would be a challenge trying to find someone who doesn’t know it’s against the law, and that people just have an addiction to being connected.

“I guess the only way that this will be driven home is through enforcement, and we are absolutely not taking our foot of the gas when it comes to that,” says Stacey.

Thumbnail by Melissa Kadey.

The editor responsible for this article is Michaela Ritchie,

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