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April 1: The end of cellphone fools' days

Two summers ago, I was walking northward up Fourth Avenue toward the lights on Main Street on an early Saturday morning.

Two summers ago, I was walking northward up Fourth Avenue toward the lights on Main Street on an early Saturday morning. I saw a woman pull out from the parallel parking spaces in front of the Taku Building, and proceed at a slow speed through a red light, through the intersection, and, at the same speed, and with the same breath-taking absence of basic concern for the safety of self and others, several more blocks down the street. Finally, she made an unsignalled right-hand turn and disappeared from view.

Pressed to the woman’s right ear, throughout the whole event, was a cellphone.

My mental response at that time was (with the explicatives deleted, as per the precedent established by the Nixon tapes) “That s@%thead is going to kill somebody one day and, given the state of earthly justice these days, she won’t be the one doing the dying.”

Harsh words, perhaps, but expressive of the resentment I have often felt at the fecklessness of our local cellphone-wielding drivers.

I am hardly alone in that resentment, of course; I have any number of friends and acquaintances who have had near-death or near-injury experiences because of reckless cellphone-using drivers. One of my co-workers, in fact, had his vehicle trashed in a t-bone collision caused by a woman running a stop sign in a snowstorm while texting.

By the time you are reading this, though, those days of silliness and mayhem should be coming to an end.

Our government has now passed legislation banning the use of handheld devices while operating a motor vehicle; and they have backed it up with some hefty penalties for violators - a $250 fine, and three points against your driver’s licence.

It may seem a little odd that a mobile-device junky like me should be celebrating such a development.

I have been a cellphone user for more than a decade now, and I routinely roam around town with a Blackberry in one pocket, an iPod another, and often a netbook in my shoulder bag.

But those things are for use when I am either stationary or just walking.

Though I confess I did, in the early days, quite regularly cellphone and drive, I quickly gave up the practice when I started seeing the statistics on just how dangerous it was to yourself and others.

Admittedly, my claims to virtue are a little shallow, since I mostly use my own feet or public transportation to get around town, but on the occasions when I am behind a steering wheel I am religious about pulling over in a safe location before I will answer my phone.

I am even purist enough that I will not even use hands-free devices to conduct business while driving - something that our new legislation actually does allow, I think mistakenly.

My own experience is that it is not just the holding and manipulation of a mobile device that is distracting, it is the fact that I am diverting my attention from the road to domestic or professional business.

There are clearly cases when using mobile communication is part of the job, as with police or emergency services. But for most of us normal people, there are really very few occasions when we need to be in steady-stream communication with anyone. Responding to voice mail later works perfectly well.

At the risk of sounding churlish, I also have to say that Yukon drivers are in particular need of restraint in this area because they are, in my experience, (and I have done a lot of travelling and driven in some major urban centres) some of the most careless automotive operators I have ever seen.

In light of this fact, (if it is indeed a fact) it is probably a good thing that cellphone service in the Yukon is limited to the boundaries of our towns: We smack each other around enough on the urban streets; we really don’t need to smack each other around on our highways, too.

What lies behind all this bad driving would, in fact, make an interesting sociological study. My own, admittedly very unscientific hypothesis, is that it has something to do with our culture of entitlement in the Yukon, and also with the fact that our road infrastructure is so well developed and our traffic flow so well regulated that we are given the leeway to be lackadaisical.

No government is going to be able to legislate good driving habits, or increased sense of social responsibility on our roadways; but they can drop the hammer on activities that are clearly dangerous to the public, as they do with drunken driving, and as they are now quite properly doing with people abusing their cellphone habits.

As a nerd by profession and inclination, I am all for high speed information technology. Just not in high speed automobiles.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.