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Distracted driving tickets rise

Jul 25 2012

More than two years after a law barring the use of handheld cell phones while driving came into effect in B.C., police are handing out a rising number of tickets for distracted driving, the Ministry of Public Safety and ICBC say.

Police handed out a monthly average of 4,008 tickets for distracted driving from January to June. That represents a rise from monthly averages of 3,286 in 2011 and 2,029 in 2010.

"Clearly, the numbers are telling us that people aren't getting the message about the danger of distracted driving - and that's disappointing," said Justice Minister Shirley Bond in an email.

The trend on Vancouver Island is less consistent. As of July 20, police had handed out about 210 tickets each month so far this year. In 2011, the monthly average was 312, and in 2010 that number was 207.

Ninety-five per cent of B.C. residents surveyed said they have seen drivers talking on handheld cell phones, according to an Angus Reid poll released last week. That was the highest rate of any region. Nationally, 90 per cent of respondents reported witnessing bad driving habits, with the lowest numbers coming from Atlantic Canadians at 87 per cent.

While the provincial ticket numbers don't distinguish between cell phone use and other forms of distracted driving - reading or changing CDs, for example - police say they have seen an increase in the use of handheld devices.

"We believe compliance has ebbed since the advent of the legislation," said Saanich Police Sgt. Dean Jantzen. "There are more people using their phones, and you will get a ticket if an officer sees you."

However, the increasing ticket numbers could be the result of increased enforcement by police.

"Police are actually getting more creative in how they spot people," said Steve Martin, B.C.'s superintendent of motor vehicles. In some cases, officers pose as street people and radio ahead when they see an offender so that traffic safety units can quickly react.

But ticketing blitzes are not about the money, Martin said. "It's really just about having a meaningful consequence for a dangerous behaviour."

The Capital Regional District's Integrated Road Safety Unit has stepped up its targeting of five cardinal offences - including distracted driving - in the past five years, said the unit's Sgt. Graeme LeBlanc.

That means staking out high-risk locations and looking for drivers who are distracted, impaired, aggressive, not wearing a seatbelt or committing intersection violations.

Police also have become more comfortable in enforcing the law.

"For the officers, there's the initial point of: 'How do we enforce this, how comfortable are we taking it into court?' " LeBlanc said. "You've seen the numbers rise. It's because there's been a seismic shift in the way we conduct our operations. - But also because we become more comfortable enforcing them."

As the ticket rates show, police continue to catch distracted drivers.

"For such a transitory offence" - one that occurs for a moment, rather than an entire stretch of driving - "it's amazing how many people are getting caught," LeBlanc said. "But on the flip side of that, we're seeing tons of people in good compliance."

Although more drivers are receiving tickets, Bond said she is encouraged to see that crashes related to distracted driving are down, as preliminary data show. From January to September 2011, the monthly average was 485 - a decrease from 523 during the same period in 2010. Data are not yet available for 2012.

Changes to the Motor Vehicle Act came into effect Jan. 1, 2010, prohibiting the use of handheld cell phones and other electronic devices while driving. Drivers holding a cell phone or similar electronic device may be fined $167, although one-touch activation is permitted. Drivers caught texting or emailing will receive three penalty points in addition to the fine.

"British Columbians made it clear they support strong restrictions on anything that takes a driver's hands off the wheel and their eyes from the road," Bond said. "The ticket numbers tell us that police have the tools they need to maintain road safety and continue enforcement. Now it's up to drivers to do their part."

Martin said changing habits takes time. "The thing to bear in mind with distracted driving is that it's a bit like seatbelts, where changing habits and human behaviour is difficult and takes time," he said.

Officials encourage drivers to use hands-free devices such as Bluetooth earpieces, if they must take a call. "It's far easier to spend $20 on a Bluetooth than the [$167] on a ticket," said Jantzen.

Drivers in the graduated licensing program are not allowed to use any device, including hands-free ones.

asmart@timescolonist.com

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