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  • By Jordan W. Charness

    A few weeks ago I wrote a column about Québec’s new law banning hand-held cell phones while driving. Although the law technically came into effect on April 1, 2008 there was a three-month grace period that was granted before the police would start enforcing the law. In theory, during this three-month period the police would give a warning ticket whenever they saw someone driving while talking on a hand-held cell phone. As far as I know, few people have been given these warning tickets.

    On the other hand, anecdotal evidence has shown that many more people are now using Bluetooth headsets while driving rather than holding onto their phones. There have also been creative attempts by people to put their cell phones on speaker and toss them on the dashboard. This silly trick leads to horrible sound quality and a possible deadly missile flying off the dashboard in case of an accident. Leaving anything on your dashboard that might fly into the drivers face could well be considered illegal if it causes an accident or a distraction.

    In that last cell phone column I asked you for your opinion on whether or not a hand-held cell phone was less dangerous, as dangerous, or more dangerous than talking using a headset. It seems to have been a popular topic as I got many many e-mails on the topic. Here is a sampling:

    Hello Jordan,

    Enjoyed your column on cell phone use in cars today. I have a cell phone that only gets used in the car when I am parked. It is not a hands-free unit, so I must use one hand to use it, the other to steer, signal, operate the wipers and change gears (I enjoy manual transmission cars) if I’m driving. Virtually impossible to do safely, so it’s off the road for me. I would never receive a call while in motion – that’s what voice mail is for.

    I’ve observed too many swerving, uneven speeding cars on the road. I can approach a car from behind and predict with over 80 per cent accuracy whether the driver is using a hand-held phone before actually verifying that the menace on the road is on his/her hand-held cell phone. My error predictions are those sipping their coffees or eating their snacks, all taking attention and one hand away from safe operation of their vehicle.

    Hands-free cell phones only distract mentally, not both mentally and physically. So there is probably a case to be made that hands-free is not much different than talking with a passenger, which will never be outlawed. I would definitely support a ban on hand-held phones in Ontario. Drivers using them are accidents waiting to happen. And I’m sure a good number have already caused accidents but haven’t been identified as being on the phone while crashing or causing others to crash.

    Now don’t get me started on texting while driving!

    G.S.
    Burlington, Ontario

    Dear Jordan,

    Some studies say you shouldn’t, some are inconclusive, some say the distraction is the same whether hands-free or using your hand to hold the phone. I can only go by what I see while driving and it’s pretty bad, especially in city traffic. Some hold the phone while turning a corner, actually limiting their field of vision while turning; others are preoccupied and swerve back to avoid an accident, others are so busy talking on the phone that they forget where they are and hold up traffic; others swerve around in their lane: its all over the map. I don’t know what the answer is, but it is just one more distraction in busy traffic….

    C.S.

    Dear Mr. Charness,

    I just read your article about the possible banning of cellular phone use by various provinces and states in North America. I was astounded that they are just now considering such a ban. Here in Ireland, and in nearly all the countries of the European Union, use of hand-held ‘mobiles’ (as we call them) while driving has been banned for several years, and there have been conclusive studies linking mobile phone use with accidents. Mobile phones in Europe are both more widely used, and generally more sophisticated than those in North America, and perhaps that is why we are so far ahead with legislation. Using a mobile phone while driving is just plain stupid, and the sooner governments in North America ban their use while driving, the better.

    R C
    Birr, County Offaly,
    Ireland.

    (Apparently people all over the world read this column–JWC )

    Jordan,

    What most people gloss over is the fact that the driver has one hand off the wheel! That, combined with the distraction of talking on the phone, is the true safety issue. Look at these folks as they turn a corner. They don’t put the phone down. They often cock their head as well, and often it is the left shoulder – and you guessed it, they don’t check their driver side mirror as they change lanes as their head is in an awkward position.

    Hands-free is the way to go here people.

    R P
    British Columbia

    Dear Jordan,

    I drive a car and I answer or make short calls (I do not chat like some people do) using my cell phone while driving. However, I only do so if I am in slow moving traffic or driving along a not-too-busy city street. Why, because I need to concentrate more when I am driving on busy streets or highways. I have encountered a lot of drivers who have either cut me off or ran red lights or figured in near mishaps because they seem to be engaged in some kind of an emotional conversation or trying to dial a telephone number with one hand while trying to shift into gear with the other. Plus, add in inherent bad driving habits and you get a recipe for an accident waiting to happen. I myself have personally experienced loose concentration while engaged in a somewhat emotional conversation on a cell phone. It proves that, depending on your current mood, emotional state and current driving habits, cellphone use will greatly contribute to an accident.

    I do not mind the government banning cell phone use while driving. I believe this is a good decision. Man has survived without cell phones for centuries. We can survive without one for a few minutes or hours. Keep up the good work!

    Regards,

    Phil

    Mr. Charness:

    Thank you for this article. It’s pleasant to see someone who goes against the media driven conventional wisdom.

    I used to drive up to 80,000 km a year and can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been nearly wiped out by people arguing with a spouse, distracted by kids, eating lunch, doing their makeup and a million other things. It all comes down to keeping your priorities in mind.

    Yes, I talk to my wife in the car. Yes, I occasionally use my phone in the car. But my focus is on the driving. If necessary, I ignore my wife, toss the phone on the floor or whatever else is necessary to accomplish my primary task, driving.

    I doubt that the statistics would change much if people used headsets. The problem is caused by people who can’t keep their primary focus on driving.

    What next? Put drivers in isolated cubicles so they can’t be distracted by their passengers? Or would the better answer be better driver training?

    On second thought, let’s not go there. That opens up a whole new sore spot for me.

    Thanks for the columns, I enjoy them every week.

    M M

    Jordan,

    Thank you for the informative column on cell phones. I’m bewildered by the zealous governments that have initiated a ban on the use of hand-held cell phones while driving and yet so many use GRS or CB radios while driving in the States and Canada and have done so for many decades. What is the difference? We all know there are drivers and then there are drivers and that includes tractor trailer operators. Some can handle multi-tasking while others are not so good at it and I include myself in the latter category. My days of lighting a cigarette while in a four-wheel drift around a curve on a Quebec highway in 1954 are long gone, so my infrequent use of the cell phone only happens when the car is pulled off to the side and stopped in a safe fashion.

    Regards,

    DW
    Gananoque, Ont.

    Dear Mr. Charness,

    To those of us who are often passengers in a vehicle that is driven by someone who uses a hand-held phone while driving, it is blatantly obvious that the driver’s ability to control the vehicle is significantly impaired – particularly if the phone is held in the driver’s left hand. For example, an ordinarily simple procedure, like operating the turn signal, requires a left-handed, phone-holding driver to now move his/her right hand from the right side of the steering wheel over to the left side in order to switch the turn signal on. That same hand must then be used to turn the steering wheel (in order to turn the vehicle), after which the turn signal must then be switched off again using the same hand. This manoeuvre, when performed during a lane change/merge at highway speed, is both visibly cumbersome and frightening to experience, as the driver clearly has less control of the moving vehicle than he/she would if BOTH hands were firmly on the steering wheel!

    If drivers MUST talk on the phone while driving, it’s got to be a hands-free phone every time.

    C D
    Calgary, Alberta

    So there you have it. An overwhelming majority of the people who wrote to me felt that driving while talking on a hand-held cell phone was significantly more dangerous than driving while talking on a hands-free. Several seem to be in favour of banning cell phone use in cars altogether. We’ll see how it goes in Québec and I’ll give you an update once again in a few months when the law is fully in effect.

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