Outlaw Car Phones and Texting, Now

Last January, eighty cars and trucks piled up on a stretch of Ontario’s Highway 401 east of Oshawa. A week later, fifty more vehicles collided on eastbound 401 near Woodstock, on the western edge of the province. Both these catastrophes were blamed on snow squalls, but they’ve earned 401 a poor reputation for safety.

My experience with Highway 401 earlier this fall was quite different. The freeway felt safer than most in North America when I drove my family to a vacation on a lake about 150 miles north of Toronto. I was prepared for traffic mayhem as I piloted our Four Seasons BMW X1, laden with luggage and with two mountain bikes on a rear rack.

I experienced quite the opposite. Cars and trucks nicely held their lanes. Most of the passing was on the left, and I saw nobody unnecessarily tapping his or her brakes to the beat of a smartphone keyboard. What alternative universe was this?

My commute between Metro Detroit and Ann Arbor is about 50 miles each way, and I see what you no doubt see on your daily drives. More often than not, your fellow drivers are yakking on their smartphones (smarter than them, I’d say), or worse, looking down and typing. The most maddening of these fellow commuters will move into the passing lane just to have free space to do the typing, while regularly tapping the brakes to keep “safe.”

Highway 401 had none of that. I must’ve spied at a dozen drivers before I caught someone using a smartphone.

I know what you’re thinking: was I too distracted looking at my fellow drivers? I don’t think so. In the course of any long commute or drive, it’s easy to observe others while keeping a close eye on that traffic ahead and on each side. It’s kind of like checking your mirrors every few seconds.

So, are Canadians simply more courteous than Americans? Are they better drivers? Did the TV show, “Canada’s Worst Driver” weed most of them out?

No. An Ontario provincial law did.

The law was enacted in October 2009, and Ontario Provincial Police began handing out tickets February 1, 2010. “Drivers caught using a hand-held device will be issued a $155 ticket,” the Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s (MTO) press statement said.

Drivers who contest and go to court may boost their fines up to $500 if they lose the case. A driver who puts others at risk may be charged with Careless Driving, with fines and penalties of up to six demerit points, $2000 and/or a six-month jail term, or even Dangerous Driving, a criminal offense subject to a maximum incarceration of five years.

“Across the province, 235,513 charges were laid under the distracted driving provisions of the Highway Traffic Act between February 1, 2010 and September 30, 2013,” the MTO says.

“We continue to monitor closely the effectiveness of the law that bans the use of hand-held devices while driving and its impact on road safety,” the MTO adds. “Any new or enhanced enforcement tools, including the addition of demerit points, will be considered as part of this ongoing monitoring and evaluation process.”

The MTO cites studies that say a driver is four times more likely to be in a crash if he or she is using a cell phone, but I don’t need such evidence. I’ve lived it and observed it nearly every day, for nearly a year. I believe touch-screen information/entertainment systems like Cadillac’s CUE and MyFordTouch are part of the problem. Bring back dials and knobs.

If you disagree, you’ve certainly not watched Werner Herzog’s short documentary, “From One Second to the Next.” You can find it here.

I got my driver’s license about the time the Ford administration imposed the 55-mph national speed limit. I don’t like added regulations and traffic laws any more than you do. But we need state laws like Ontario’s. I hope we don’t need the National Highway Transportation Administration to strongarm states with a federal mandate. I won’t contemplate going further with laws and regulations just yet, because I have faith that laws like Ontario’s will work wonders on the biggest traffic safety issue of our day.

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