Will Alberta’s new cellphone law lead to safer roads? – Editorial

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GEORGE BROWN/Off the Record

I don’t mind my 45-minute commute to work every day nor the 30 minutes from my office in Ponoka to the Rimbey Review. The former allows me to organize my day, re-arrange the clutter in my mind (it won’t happen to my desk) and catch up on the sportstalk chatter on the minds of couch-bound Albertans like me.

The trip home allows me to decompress, to chill out with a good cigar after a bad day, put it all in perspective, and remove any temptation to kick my dog when I get home.

I was one of the last of my clique to get a cellphone in the mid-Nineties and it was a big red thing, like the Bat Phone on Commissioner Gordon’s desk. It kept me in touch with home and family, and the office if I was going to be away from a landline for an extended period. When the move came to PDAs and Star Trekesque communicators I felt I didn’t need one but eventually relented and got a phone that was awkward to use for anything other than making a call.

Then finally, I received an iPhone for my birthday and I was hooked. Without offering a free advertisement among the paid ones here in the newspaper, the iPhone is an amazing communications tool. It’s more a handheld computer that will also make a phone call. Anything you want your iPhone to do, there’s an app for that. It was a great help when we were on vacation in Seattle and Victoria when we wanted to know if there was a good place to eat near our hotel, what was playing at the theatre or which outlet had the cheapest gas.

I also got a GPS unit for my birthday and it was invaluable as we tried to meander our way through unfamiliar streets.

Travelling a minimum 160 kilometres daily on urban streets, highways and gravel roads, I’ve pretty much seen it all in the passing parade of bikes, compact cars, big trucks and motorhomes. Knowing I would soon write a piece about distracted driving, I made a mental note this week of some of the acts I saw. I came up behind a man driving slowly but almost in the trunk of the car ahead of him. As I passed this driver I noticed he was reading what appeared to be a map that he had draped over the steering wheel. The driver in front of him didn’t seem to mind as she was involved in a cellphone conversation. I passed them both as I didn’t want to be a witness to what was likely to happen next.

The next day, I saw up ahead a small truck stopped at a rural intersection. It was at least a kilometre ahead so I was surprised it hadn’t moved and after sitting behind the truck for a moment or two, I politely tooted the horn to move things along. I got a polite wave and off we go. As I passed this pokey pickup I noticed the driver was a nun, one of the Sisters of Mary. Praying and driving.

Late last month Transportation Minister Luke Ouellette announced Alberta’s new distracted driving legislation will come into effect Sept. 1. This so-called most comprehensive legislation in Canada prohibits drivers from using handheld cellphones, texting and e-mailing, using laptop computers, video games and cameras, MP3 players, entering information into a GPS unit, reading printed material, writing, printing or sketching and personal grooming. Drivers will be able to use a cellphone in hands-free mode only, activated by a single touch or by voice.

My pet peeve (no pun intended) is the idiot who has Fido or Fluffy on his/her lap driving around town. You can still drive with a dog on your lap and you can still eat a hotdog under this law. Apparently the lobby from pet owners and the fast food industry was more successful than the communications industry in persuading crafters of this legislation.

My dog usually sits in the back seat and I know if I try to eat a burger on the go it will end up on my shirt. So I don’t even try. You can put a greasy cheeseburger in front of your face but you can’t put a cellphone to your ear.

You would think you would be safe from Johnny Law’s prying eyes into your metal cocoon while you are sitting at a railway crossing but you would be wrong. You can eat a buffet meal, toss the scraps to the dog obscuring your vision but you cannot brush your hair, fix your lipstick or send a text message even though you have put your car in park and turned off the engine (you are environmentally friendly after all). Legally you are on the roadway, which could mean pulling over on the highway shoulder to use your cellphone would be a no-no. Calling from a parked car on Main Street should be permissible but the legislation vaguely refers to being “legally parked.”

I am a conflicted on the legislation because I want safer roads, just like everyone else. The legislation specifically targets actions involving electronic devices while ignoring equally “distracting” acts.

Penalties under this legislation carry no demerits so much like photo radar your pocketbook gets tapped for $172 but your driving record remains spotless. Serial cellphone users will be fined but burger bingers will go free. No word on what will happen if a photo radar photo shows the driver to be on a cellphone while speeding — or not.

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