News Local

Distracted driving a local problem

Cecilia Nasmith

By Cecilia Nasmith, Northumberland Today

Distracted driving-related road deaths are set to double the number of impaired-related deaths this year, reports Ontario Provincial Police.

Distracted driving-related road deaths are set to double the number of impaired-related deaths this year, reports Ontario Provincial Police. CLIFFORD SKARSTEDT/Postmedia Network

Distracted driving has been the subject of a five-part Postmedia series in newspapers this week, including Northumberland Today. The following story focuses on the problem locally in Northumberland. 

Along with the fun of continuously staying in touch with our friends, the cell-phone culture has a hidden deadly side in the form of distracted driving.

The term comes from OPP Provincial Constable Jason Folz, community safety officer, who reports that — over the last few days — a new OPP method of enforcing distracted-driving laws has resulted in 50 charges being laid in Northumberland County.

Northumberland OPP detachment commander Lisa Darling called the figure significant, adding that this has become a big issue.

Part of the challenge is the actual laying of the charge, which requires evidence, Darling explained. Often, a distracted driver is focusing on a device in his or her lap, so being able to obtain evidence can be hard.

Officers have become creative in their approach, making their observations from better vantage points (depending on the immediate area) — while standing on a street corner, while riding a bike, or a new approach recently profiled in the Peterborough Examiner.

The story referred to some success the OPP is having with an unorthodox vehicle whose description they are withholding for strategic purposes. There is one vehicle for the entire Central Region, Darling said, so it's circulating among detachments. These local charges were laid while it has been placed with the Northumberland detachment.

“It's labour-intensive, because you require several officers – one to drive it, one to observe and officers to stop the car. But it's worth it, because it's a very serious problem,” Darling said.

Folz considers it a good approach.

“Everybody's seen this at traffic lights, the phone on in your lap or on your right leg. Then, in the presence of a marked police car, you'd be surprised how many people aren't doing that. I have watched people get off their phones when they notice a police car,” he said.

“The use of unconventional vehicles certainly helps us with the ability to watch people and get evidence. It gives the officer time to be able to form a case and say, 'Yes, this is distracted driving.'”

Technically, distracted driving is any scenario where one's full attention is not on operating the vehicle — while eating or tuning a radio, for example. But the proliferation of communications devices has caused the incidence to skyrocket.

“Everybody's got a cell phone, everybody is on that cell phone — and it's not yet socially unacceptable for people to sneak a look at a text or e-mail at a traffic light or, unfortunately, even while driving down the highway.”

Pulling off the road to work a device while signalling with the four-way flashers is something they do see a lot more. But Folz finds these drivers don't always pick the best spots.

“If you are going to pull over, make sure it's a safe location — a rest stop or even one of those OnRoute places — to be able to do that in a safe fashion, as opposed to a narrow shoulder, if it's so important to check that text or e-mail.”

For the OPP, the ideal outcome would be for society to feel the same condemnation for a texting driver as they do for a drinking driver.

If you saw a driver hoisting a beer, Folz said, you would probably not only feel disapproval but you might also call it in to the police.

That's how it should be when you spot someone using a cell phone — now recognized as a leading contributor to death and carnage on the highway.

In Ontario, deaths from collisions that involve distracted driving have doubled since 2000.

For about eight years now, Folz said, it has surpassed impaired driving as the leading cause.

“It has been number-one and continues to be number-one.”

Of the 299 people who died on Ontario roads in 2015, he said, driver inattention was the cause of 69. By contrast, 61 were speed-related, 51 were due to lack of a seatbelt, and 45 were attributable to alcohol or drugs.

Inspector Darren Strongman of the Port Hope Police Service believes education is an important piece in the puzzle.

“We have a couple of officers trained in delivering lectures on texting and driving, and the high schools are running these lectures throughout the year,” Strongman said.

“It is important that we address our youth on this and educate them on the dangers — how tragic it is when you hear of somebody involved in a fatal motor vehicle accident.”

One commercial Strongman is seeing these days sums up the message they want to send. It shows a teenage driver whose cell phone goes off while he is on the road. He looks down at it and, in the next scene, he's in a wheelchair, paralyzed.

“Hopefully through education, they will understand,” he said.

And don't forget the dangers of distracted pedestrians, he added — people so wrapped up in communicating through their devices that they fail to take appropriate care when coming into contact with traffic.

Sgt. Mike Richardson of the Cobourg Police Service said distracted driving is high on his list as he conducts traffic-enforcement operations. And it's something he sees among all age groups.

“All ages of society have access to cell phones and texting communications,” Richardson said.

Over the past year, the Cobourg Police Service has run a STEP (Selective Traffic Enforcement Program) with a different area of focus each month. For February, the focus will be distracted driving.

“I have actually heard people say they are good at being able to text and drive,” Folz said.

“That's cell phones and what I will call the cell-phone culture we have right now. People can't not check that text message, for some strange reason.”

An incoming message is as compelling as getting a tap on the shoulder in a public place, he said. You can't help yourself — you have to look.

Is it safe to have a quick look at your device when stopped at a traffic light? Perhaps, Folz said.

“But you graduate from there to checking on the highway when you don't see anybody in front of you.”

Folz has participated in a training exercise where he was told to find an address on an unfamiliar street while loud music was playing and he was reciting the alphabet backwards.

“What suffers first is the driving, because of the cognitive part of it — taking your mind off the road. It's not just the visual or manual operations (of the cell phone),” he stated.

Even on a hands-free phone, your communications can become your focus, to the point that your vehicle may cross into another lane and a life-and-death situation develops when you're distracted from making the right decisions.

Put your cell phone on mute, Folz suggested. Or better yet, carry it in the car where it cannot be reached.