Drivers Falling into Old Cellphone Habits

Media Appearances, Disruption, Frontier Centre

A little more than a year after New Brunswick brought in its distracted driving law, police say motorists are slipping back into their old habits of texting, talking and fiddling with electronic devices while on the road.

And while no one argues that the roads would be safer if drivers were less distracted, one public policy think tank says the laws banning cellphone use while driving actually may be having a negative, rather than positive, impact on safety.

"If dangerous distracted drivers stopped using their phones entirely, the roads would be safer," Steve Lafleur, an analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy says.

"Trouble is, telling people to not use their phones is just not working."

Staff Sgt. Stéphane Caron of the New Brunswick RCMP's Traffic Services, said Mounties have issued more than 700 tickets to people caught using electronic devices since the province's distracted driving legislation came into effect in June, 2011.

He said that at the beginning, compliance was strong in New Brunswick, especially in rural areas.

"As a result of the impact of the introduction of the legislation, we saw a lot of people pulling over to the side of the road or using hands-free devices," Caron said in an interview.

"But now we are starting to see a return to old habits. I don't know if it's as high as it used to be before the legislation, but we are seeing that trend again."

Lafleur said drivers are becoming more surreptitious about using their phones or texting devices, holding them below the dashboard where police can't see them.

"There are few things you can do that are more dangerous while driving than looking below windshield level," he said.

"This is the type of behavior that cellphone bans encourage."

Caron said it is far too early to say what impact the driver distraction legislation will have on traffic safety in New Brunswick.

Lafleur said that in his province of Manitoba, the province has seen traffic fatalities reach record levels during the first full year of that province's ban on cellphone use while driving.

The Manitoba ban came into effect halfway through 2010. In 2011, there were 110 fatalities in the province.

New Brunswick's most recent traffic fatality numbers date from 2008 – long before the cellphone ban came into effect.

"The Manitoba findings are consistent with the experiences of other jurisdictions that have adopted similar legislation," Lafleur said.

"They are consistent, for example, with data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which has studied the effects of distracted driving legislation in the United States. In a study of four states that implemented banning texting while driving, IIHS found that collisions increased in all four jurisdictions relative to comparable states."

Lafleur said governments cannot ban the biggest distractions in automobiles – passengers.

He said better driver education has to be part of the solution, as well as more broad enforcement of dangerous driving laws.

"There are so many different things you could be doing in your car that could be distracting you – passengers are the first one, picking something off the floor, manipulating your CD player. You can't ban all of these things."

Caron said that while drivers are getting cagier about using their cellphones while behind the wheel, police are becoming craftier at catching them.

RCMP officers in Moncton have mounted several sting operations to catch motorists using electronic devices.

The operations involve officers posing, for instance, as traffic flaggers at fake road-construction sites or as panhandlers hustling drivers stopped at busy intersections.

The officers peer into vehicles and if a driver is using an electronic device or if someone in the vehicle isn't wearing a seatbelt, the pretend panhandler or flagger radios to uniformed officers down the road to stop the car and take the appropriate action, most often a $172 ticket.

Caron said these kinds of operations are more difficult in rural areas, but not impossible.

"We have been doing operations where we have the officers in unmarked vehicles and civilian clothing parked as observers in certain areas and then they warn the interception team ahead that someone is texting or not wearing their seatbelt," he said.