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.