Who’s distracted?

Once the law is in effect next month, it will be illegal in Ontario to talk,text or email on any hand-held cellphone while wearing white pants.

Once the law is in effect next month, it will be illegal in Ontario, like it is already in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Quebec, to talk, text or email on any hand-held cellphone while wearing white pants.

Sorry, got distracted… Better turn this off…

The ban is actually on hand-held cellphones while driving.

B.C. will be next to join the party. P.E.I., Manitoba, and Saskatchewan are mulling it over. Alberta looked it over and said, “no thanks.”

One can see why this issue is not a slam-dunk decision for many jurisdictions.

For one thing, studies continue to point out that hands-free is not substantially safer than hands-held.

Even the Canada-based Coalition for Cellphone-Free Driving is not keen on hands-free legislation. Actually they are more than “not keen” — they are vehemently opposed to it.

“It’s the conversation that’s the distraction, not whether it’s on hands-held or hands-free,” says Dr. Louis Francescutti, the Edmonton emergency physician who founded the coalition.

Francescutti adds that research has definitely proven that humans are not designed to multi-task: “We’re designed to do one thing at a time, and to do it properly.” As he tells me this over the phone, I picture a cave man, with spear in hand, stealthily tracking some suitable game, then stopping to take a call on his Blackberry, then getting run over by a herd of wild beasts.

“When jurisdictions are looking at furthering legislation to increase road safety, they really have to look at the big picture,” noted Marc Choma, spokesperson for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association. “I think you can tend to give people a false sense of security when you start picking and choosing (potential in-car) distractions.”

Of course this line of reasoning falls into the “how can you legislate common sense?” camp. You can legislate cellphone use, but can you legislate other distractions in the car, like cheeseburgers, vanilla lattes, inflatable dolls, CD changers, schnauzers, you name it?

Technology also has a role. Consider Ford’s SYNC system, a voice-activated way for drivers to use mobile phones and digital music players.

Kerri Stoakley, communications manager, Ford of Canada, noted that SYNC is designed to keep the drivers’ eyes where they should be — on the road.

“Drivers are going to have conversations, read maps and directions, and listen to music while they drive — Ford SYNC helps drivers perform these tasks safer.

“Our research shows for example, that manually operating (not talking on) phones is substantially more distracting then using a voice interface, that typical eyes-off-the-road times to select a specific song were more than 25 seconds with a hand-held music player versus about two seconds with SYNC, and that average eyes-off-the-road times to find a contact were 14.7 seconds with a handheld cellphone as compared to 3.2 seconds with SYNC.”

There’s also the possibility that engaging in distracting activities while driving, will simply become socially unacceptable one day, like wearing white pants after Labour Day, or making mini sculptures out of ear wax.

Until that time comes, there will be more legislation, more calls for common sense, and more technology advances.

On the go ...

If you must take your cell-phone with you in the car, consider these safety tips:

• Ask, “Do I really need to take that call?” Let most — or all — calls go to voicemail.

• Install your hands-free kit before you start driving.

• Keep conversations brief. For example, don’t call your “ex” to go over that break-up.

• Texting while driving? Are you kidding?

More tips at www.focusondriving.ca.

– Michael Goetz has been writing about cars and editing automotive publications for over 20 years. He lives in Toronto with his family and a neglected 1967 Jaguar E-type.

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