Cellphone ban may not make roads safer

The Yukon plans to join many Canadian provinces this April in banning the use of handheld cellphones while driving. Highways Minister Archie Lang says the new law "will improve safety on Yukon roads.

The Yukon plans to join many Canadian provinces this April in banning the use of handheld cellphones while driving. Highways Minister Archie Lang says the new law “will improve safety on Yukon roads.”

Unfortunately, there’s little evidence to support that view.

It’s well established that using a cellphone while driving increases the likelihood of crashing. But a rash of studies have found drivers using hands-free headsets are just as dangerous as drivers with cellphones held to their ears.

It turns out the distraction of talking on the phone is what causes many accidents, whether the device is mounted on your visor or held in your hand.

Some researchers even worry that bans on handheld phone use while driving may be counterproductive, by fostering a false sense of security among drivers who use hands-free headsets.

Drivers with these headsets tend to talk longer and more frequently, according to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And drivers who use a phone quadruple their odds of getting in a crash, according to several studies.

But all Canadian provinces with cellphone bans allow hands-free headsets. So Yukon will, too.

That’s “to be consistent with the laws of the provinces,” Highways Minister Archie Lang said on Thursday, while the bill received second reading by MLAs. It went on to receive unanimous support.

Asked to produce studies that show that laws requiring hands-free headsets make the roads safer, Jennifer Magnuson, a spokesperson for Highways and Public Works, said, “I don’t have that answer.” Lang declined an interview this week.

Jim Kenyon, the government’s MLA for Porter Creek North, acknowledged in the legislature that Yukon could have different laws than elsewhere. But “it could be fairly confusing,” he said.

And different laws would require more road signs. “Reading that sign would become a distraction,” he said.

Drivers who talk on cellphones are just as dangerous as drunk drivers, according to one well-publicized study by researchers with the University of Utah in 2006. That same study found “no significant differences in the impairments” of drivers, whether they used a hand-held or hands-free phone.

The Highway Loss Data Institute, which represents US insurance companies, compared collision rates in states with and without cellphone bans earlier this year. It found no difference in accident rates and concluded “the risk is about the same, regardless of whether the phones are handheld or hands-free.”

And in March, the US National Safety Council warned that bans on handheld phones “give the false impression that using a hands-free phone is safe.”

All this recently led Maclean’s magazine to conclude “cellphone bans aren’t making the roads any safer.” The article proposes two reasons for why these laws are popular: they create the impression that politicians are doing something about the problem of drivers distracted by cellphones, and the resulting fines issued to drivers provide governments with additional revenue.

“I question that statement,” Premier Dennis Fentie said, in a glancing reference to the article on Thursday. But he didn’t provide any valid objection. Instead, he noted that drivers face many distractions other than phones, which is true, but beside the point.

In December, all of Yukon’s MLAs approved the first draft of the bill, save for Brad Cathers, Lake Laberge’s independent MLA. Cathers now offers reluctant support to the bill, after hearing from constituents who support the new law.

Eight provinces currently have cellphone driving laws: Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia. Alberta is expecting to pass such a law soon.

“According to Alberta Motor Association, banning the use of electronic devices and implementing harsh fines have shown a significant reduction of cellphone use behind the wheel, bringing the drivers’ attention to the task of driving,” said Magnuson.

“No, that’s not quite correct,” said Don Szarko, the AMA’s director of advocacy. “It’s too early to measure the impact of cellphone legislation.”

His group does support broad bans on the use of electronic devices behind the wheel. Evidence in the US shows that most drivers are willing to obey cellphone bans, said Szarko.

That offers hope laws that require hands-free headsets will, at least, discourage drivers who lack such gadgets from fiddling with their phones.

But an outright ban on cellphone use while driving would be even more effective, according to a study released by the University of Calgary on Wednesday. It weighs the costs and benefits of a cellphone ban for the province and concludes such a law would save the province $36 million annually in health-care and clean-up costs, as well as prevent 15 deaths each year.

Its lead author, Alan Shiell, is calling on Alberta to ban all calls behind the wheel, handheld and hands-free.

Yukon’s draft law would also ban the use of electronic devices that can transmit messages while driving. It remains to be seen how harsh the fines will be.

Drivers who want to use a handheld device would have to pull over, with exemptions for emergency workers.

According to a survey of 1,600 Yukoners conducted in July, the vast majority of residents support restrictions on the use of these devices while driving: 98 per cent disapproved of texting, 94 per cent opposed the use of handheld devices, and 87 per cent objected to the use of cellphones.

Drivers face all manner of distractions, of course, with cellphones being just one of them. Changing a CD or fiddling with the radio can be just as distracting as taking a call, Cathers noted.

Talking to a passenger can be distracting too, although studies suggest that speaking to a disembodied voice is more taxing on a driver’s concentration.

The territory also plans to launch a campaign “to educate Yukoners on the dangers of driving while distracted,” according to a release.

That much, at least, everyone agrees is a smart move. Especially if the campaign explains that while a hands-free call behind the wheel is legal, that doesn’t make it safe.

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