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All hands on deck: Distracted driving debate continues

By Stefan Dubowski

A growing mountain of evidence suggests that if we really want to do away with distracted driving, governments need to ban the use of hands-free cellphone systems in vehicles. But some safety experts wonder if that’s realistic.

Numerous studies indicate that drivers who use cellphones — hands-free or not — are terribly distracted. While hands-free units allow drivers to make and receive calls without taking their eyes off the road to dial the number, the technology doesn’t make up for the fact that the driver isn’t paying as much attention to the road.

The University of Utah found that driving impairment is just as bad if the driver uses a handheld or a hands-free phone. The U.S. Highway Loss Data Institute found no reductions in crashes after handheld phone use was banned in various states, leading the researchers to wonder if hands-free systems were any less distracting.

A National Safety Council white paper points to “inattention blindness” as the real issue. “Drivers using hands-free phones… have a tendency to ‘look at’ but not ‘see’ objects,” the paper says. “Estimates indicate that drivers using cellphones look but fail to see up to 50 per cent of the information in their driving environment.”

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in December called for an outright ban on drivers’ use of portable electronic devices in vehicles, following several incidents in which drivers were distracted by phone calls, texts or emails. In one case, a bus driver distracted on his hands-free cellphone failed to move to the centre lane and hit the underside of a bridge, injuring 11 of the 27 high-school passengers.

Across Canada, it’s illegal to drive while using a cellphone — unless it’s hands-free. But if the research is right, the only way to ensure that drivers aren’t distracted by cellphones is to ban the use of hands-free units as well.

That was the Alberta Motor Association’s (AMA) point of view during the debates on Alberta’s recently-enacted distracted-driving legislation, says Don Szarko, the AMA’s director, advocacy and community services.

“We really advocated the Alberta government hard: this is difficult legislation to get passed; try to make it as encompassing as you can, and include a ban on hands-free.”

But the government didn’t go that far. Instead, the new rules (in force as of last September) restrict drivers from using handheld electronic devices including cellphones, computers and portable music players. The regulations also forbid drivers from activities such as texting, emailing, entering information into GPS units, reading, writing, and personal grooming while driving.

It’s considered the most comprehensive distracted-driving legislation in the country — and that’s why the AMA generally supports it, even though it didn’t forbid hands-free units.

“No legislation is perfect,” Szarko says. “But it’ll send a message to a lot of people, and it will start the process of enforcement.”

But enforcement is a sticking point, notes Jeremy Shorthouse, national environmental health and safety manager, Vincor Canada (a wine producer and marketer). If lawmakers decide to ban the use of hands-free systems, how would the police enforce that? How would they know if someone’s using a hands-free unit? It isn’t easy to tell. If a driver is using a handheld cellphone, it’s obvious — police can see that the driver is holding the device up to his ear. It isn’t as simple to pinpoint drivers using hands-free units.

“The craziest thing we do in the world of safety, protection and risk management is we put in rules that are just going to be broken, instead of looking for ways to mitigate the risk,” Shorthouse says. “If it’s not enforceable, you’re just wasting your time.”

He recommends focusing on safety aspects that are controllable, such as ensuring that people who do use cellphones while driving do so as safely as possible — and that means removing the need for manual input to make calls or receive text messages. Hands-free technology is a step in the right direction, Shorthouse says.

Spencer McDonald, president of Thinking Driver — a driver training firm — notes that while the research suggests a total hands-free ban is in order, it isn’t feasible for delivery drivers, police and emergency workers, who need to communicate with dispatch while behind the wheel in order to go about their work.

He says people need to balance communication and safety: “Use that device at a point in time when you know you’re not being challenged otherwise, in terms of manipulating the vehicle or making critical decisions while you’re in traffic,” McDonald says.

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