Only Morons Chat and Drive

If you operate a mobile phone while driving, you are one of the 17 million Canadians who are complete and utter morons.

No offense, though. Until very recently I was a moron, too.

Seriously, though: research has demonstrated again and again that even chatting hands-free on a mobile phone impairs you more than driving drunk.

And so the title sticks: if you’re willing to endanger your own life, the lives of your passengers, the lives of others using the roadways and even the sidewalks, just to take a call or text message, then you are a moron.

You might find my assessment shocking. Strong-handed, even.

After all, unlike with drunk driving, chatting on a mobile phone while driving is an acceptable social norm.

It is commonly practised. Just look around next time you’re on the road. Tons of people do it.

(And take note of how drivers you see talking on a phone are driving too slow, or too fast, just ran a light, or are creeping over into your lane.)

But therein lies the problem of mobile phones in cars: they are socially acceptable.

As once was driving without a seatbelt. And driving drunk.

So this unsafe practice has woven itself into the fabric of our daily activities and become a part of the pattern.

But that doesn’t mean it’s right.

Only recently have we begun to pay attention to the risks of using mobile devices while driving, despite the fact that researchers have been identifying them for years.

Part of the reason for that is our punch drunk love affair with mobile phones.

Lawmakers, policymakers, social activists and Joe Q. Public alike are all addicted to their devices.

Which has led to our current state of wilful ignorance.

Five years ago, for example, the U.S. Federal government suppressed a Department of Transportation study that clearly revealed the dangers of operating mobile devices while driving.

It seems the lust for telecom company campaign contributions overrode the requirements of national public safety.

Another problem is a lack of real-world statistical evidence.

Very few jurisdictions record the relationship of a mobile device to an automobile accident, despite frequent evidence of such.

MADD can report with confidence that in 2007, almost 13,000 people died in accidents related to alcohol.

But there are only rough estimates for deaths related to cell phones, despite the fact that researchers have proven the practice’s extreme risks.

One Harvard study estimated 2,600 deaths in 2002.

Project forward from that study and you could say that about 8,000 people died as a result of road accidents caused by mobile phone use just last year.

And that the number is steadily increasing.

Meanwhile, our governments seems conflicted about how to handle the matter.

And that lack of leadership is potentially harmful.

Transport Canada tells us that, “there is an increased risk of collision when using a cell phone, even if it is hands-free.”

Yet, this same government agency has approved vehicles for sale in Canada that include built-in hands-free systems as a standard feature.

From a legislative perspective, jurisdiction falls on provincial and territorial governments.

And the provinces and territories are all over the map, so to speak, on the matter of cell phone use while driving.

Newfoundland, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Ontario have made operating a handheld mobile device while driving illegal.

British Columbia is “consulting” on the matter, and is considering banning even handsfree devices.

Alberta and Prince Edward Island say existing unsafe- and distracted-driving laws cover the matter just fine.

Meanwhile, Saskatchewan has launched an educational campaign to highlight the dangers and risks of operating devices while driving.

Saskatchewan’s efforts might seem pithy, but police say bans are almost impossible to enforce, so education may be the most effective approach.

As for the mobile and auto industries, well, they don’t make any money off of safety.

So there’s no movement there.

With such an inconsistent message coming from government, law enforcement, and industry, it’s no wonder drivers have adopted a system of anarchy when using their mobile phones in the car.

For the time being at least, it falls down to us to self-regulate.

So that’s where the moron thing comes in.

If by simply name-calling I can get just one of you to stash your mobile phone while you’re driving, then I’ve contributed to the safety of my community.

Heck, I might have even saved a life.

Even better, if you take this sensibility out into the community, we can have an even broader impact.

Let your friends and family know that you disapprove of their cell phone use in cars.

Don’t loan your vehicle to people who chat and drive.

Heck, honk at people you see doing it.

Because even if government gets it together enough to implement a cohesive legal standard, police will have a very difficult time enforcing it.

And, really, it’s up to us anyway. We’re all grown ups. We shouldn’t need cops to slap our wrists into submission.

We, individually and as a community, should be ready and willing to work for the safety of ourselves and others, of our own volition.

Because if we can’t, well… we’re all morons.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, July 31, 2009.

Cell Phone Bans in Canada

Many U.S. states ban the use of hand-held cell phones while operating a motor vehicle. And recently a set of leaked research revealed that the U.S. Department of Transportation was leaning towards recommending a full ban federally 6 years ago.

So what’s the legal landscape in Canada look like?

First, from Transport Canada, some light, fluffy recommendations (Cell Phones and Driving – Safety Tip):

  • Turn the phone off before you start driving. Let callers leave a message.
  • If there are passengers in the vehicle, let one of them take or make the call. If you’re expecting an important call, let someone else drive.
  • If you have to make or receive a call, look for a safe opportunity to pull over and park.

The agency has done very little research into the matter, having simply patched on a brief observational study of in-vehicle cell phone use to a couple of seat belt studies back in 2006 and 2007 (Observational Survey of Cell Phone use by Drivers of Light Duty Vehicles 2006 – 2007).

And the results of this study are questionable. Transport Canada concluded that an average of 5.5% of Canadian use a cell phone while driving. But a recent IPSOS Reid study had a full 52% of drivers admitting to this behaviour.

The following provinces in Canada currently have restrictions on the use of handheld mobile phones while operating a motor vehicle:

  • Newfoundland and Labrador (2003);
  • Quebec (2008)
  • Nova Scotia (2008)
  • Ontario (September 2009)

Manitoba is currently considering a ban, and British Columbia is considering a full ban on operation of any device in a motor vehicle, handheld or hands-free.

Other jurisdictions such as Alberta and Prince Edward Island consider existing unsafe-driving legislation sufficient to cover the use of devices in motor vehicles. I tend to agree with that as device-specific bans haven’t been proven to be any more effective than existing laws.

In fact, the ban in North Carolina saw cell phone use increase in teens operating motor vehicles following its introduction, despite the fact that a vast majority admitted to being aware of the law. And in Transport Canada’s observational study, use of mobile phones in Newfoundland and Labrador wasn’t particularly lower than most other regions of Canada.

In my opinion, Saskatchewan is tackling the issue most effectively by running a large ad campaign to educate drivers about the risks of operating a motor vehicle while distracted.

Hands-Free No Safer Than Handheld?

Many people consider hand-free in-car mobile devices to be risk-free. However, a 2006 study from Jacksonville State University (Active Prompting to Decrease Cell Phone Use and Increase Seat Belt Use While Driving) says that,

[c]ompared to drivers who do not use cell phones, drivers talking on cell phones miss twice as many traffic signals, are more likely to swerve into the next lane (46%), tailgate (23%), have close calls (18%), and run red lights (10%)  … The use of a hands-free phone results in an equal level of distraction, but the radio, passenger conversation, and books on tape do not interfere with driving to the same extent …

The paper cites numerous other studies that have reached this conclusion.

And from a 2000 study at Harvard, cited in a suppressed body of research conducted by the US Department of Transportation in 2003 and recently published in the New York Times (Documents: Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration):

It is not clear whether hands-free cellular phone designs are significantly safer than hand-held designs, since it may be that conversation per se rather than dialing/handling is responsible for most of the attributable risk due to cellular phone use while driving.

So why have government and industry embraced hand-free mobile devices as a resonable-risk alternative to simply working to prevent all form of extra-vehicular communication?

Could it be that lawmakers, politicians and technology designers are simply too addicted to their own devices to care?

Suppressed US Study on Dangers of Mobile Phones in Cars

And this from a piece in the Silicon Valley Mercury News (Roadshow: Withholding of cell phone data infuriates many drivers):

The Times reported that six years ago the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed a far-reaching study of 10,000 drivers to assess the safety risk posed by drivers yakking on cell phones. The agency estimated that cell phone use caused about 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents nationwide in 2002.

Death by Mobile Phone

From an article on MyCentralJersey.com (Dying to text? Despite New Jersey’s tough ban, drivers continue to tempt fate):

The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis estimated in 2000 that 900 people a year died in car accidents associated with cell-phone use in the United States. The number of fatalities jumped to 2,600 in 2002. Cell phone use has risen dramatically since then.

Like I’ve said before, laws don’t work on issues like this. We need public communication that makes people who talk and text while driving feel like the morons they truly are.

How Northwestel Measures Up to Southern Canadian Internet Providers

In light of Northwestel’s new pricing that takes effect September 1, I looked at a cross-section of Canadian internet providers this evening. And I’d summarize Northwestel’s service upgrade something like this: relatively competitive service levels, but insanely expensive prices.

Internet services in Canada seem to be very regionally dependent. Bell, for example, offers very competitive packages in Ontario, but almost nothing in British Columbia. And some providers I looked at, like Cogeco and Vidéotron, are limited to Ontario and Quebec. Of course, Northwestel is the North’s sole provider.

So it’s somewhat surprising that packages are at all comparable across Canada. But, roughly, they are. Continue reading

Low-Down on Northwestel Internet Service Upgrade

Northwestel has posted details about the upgrade to their cable internet services which go into effect on September 1 (Internet Service Changes).

I’m particularly satisfied by the three-fold increase in data use limitations for the highest level package. It’s gone from 20 GB per month to 60, which is definitely an improvement. The $10 monthly drop in price is pretty sweet, too.

While these improvements are welcome, and I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, there’s still room for improvement, both from a service and cost perspective.

For example, Northwestel’s new High Performance Internet package includes 60 GB of data transfer, tops out at a data rate of 16 Mbps, and costs a whopping $80 (without television service, as I order it).

Shaw, on the other hand, offers a High-Speed Xtreme-I package that includes 100 GB of data transfer and tops out at 15 Mbps. That extra 40 GB of data per month is huge, though, when you consider that Shaw offers this package for just $52 (again, without television). That’s almost $30 less than Northwestel.

Even on the low end, Shaw is still ahead. Their High-Speed Lite package offers a 256 kbps download speed, 10 GB of monthly data usage, and costs just $30 without TV.

Northwestel’s High-Speed Lite package offers 356 kbps, just 5 GB of monthly data usage and costs $10 more per month without TV.

It’s worth noting that in both packages Northwestel compensates by offering slightly-faster download rates. But I’d argue that data volume carries more value than data rate, since that’s really the true “ceiling” on a package. After all, that’s where you’ll ending up paying extra if you exceed the package limitations.

So, again, I don’t want too whine too much, because I’m stoked with the new service (or, I will be when it actually arrives in a month or so), but there’s still clearly a premium Northerners must pay for high speed internet. Or, as the age-old saying goes, Northerners can’t be choosers!

Now we’ll just have to wait and see if the new fibre line lives up to the speed promises of the forthcoming services…

Let’s Help Teens Practice Safe Sext

iTunesIn an episode of the TV comedy series Arrested Development, Tobias Funkë accidentally takes a picture of his genitals with a borrowed mobile phone.

The picture makes its way to a federal prosecutor’s office and finally into the hands of the FBI and the CIA, where it is mistaken for a satellite photograph of Iraq.

Through a careful analysis of the geography of wrinkles and moles, the US Military confirms the locations of several Weapons of Mass Destruction. A massive invasion and attack plan is prepared. Air, sea, and ground forces are mobilized.

Meanwhile, Tobias is watching the TV news. The map on which the government is basing their invasion is displayed on the screen. Tobias is shocked. He glances down at his groin, then says in dismay: “I’m on… TV…”

Originally aired on December 12, 2004, this is possibly the earliest recorded incident of sexting.

And it’s a humorous example of a common outcome of the practice: unintended public display of one’s nether regions. Continue reading