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Convenience trumps road safety

What's more dangerous: driving while talking with a phone held to your ear, or while talking with a wireless headset? Trick question. In both cases, drivers have been found to quadruple their odds of ending up in an accident.

What’s more dangerous: driving while talking with a phone held to your ear, or while talking with a wireless headset?

Trick question.

In both cases, drivers have been found to quadruple their odds of ending up in an accident. By another measure, talking on the phone and driving - whether the phone is handheld or hands-free - is as dangerous as driving drunk.

Yet eight Canadian provinces have already passed laws that ban the use of handheld phones while driving, while still allowing drivers to make hands-free calls. Alberta is set to follow suit.

Now, so is Yukon, with a proposed law that the government plans to pass in several weeks and begin enforcing this April.

If these laws strike you as not being particularly rational, you’d find good company with Alan Shiell. He’s a University of Calgary professor who last week released a study that suggests a full-out ban on cellphone use while driving would save Alberta money and lives.

He calls a partial ban on cellphone use a “half-measure.” And he worries that such bans will only encourage drivers to buy wireless headsets.

“My expectation is, if you allow hands-free, all you get is people switching from hand-held to hands-free,” he says. “And if hands-free isn’t safer ... then we’re not going to get any impact on collisions and injuries.

“It’s going to be a waste of time.”

But half-measures are politically expedient. They create the impression that governments are doing something to curb distracted driving, without actually inconveniencing drivers, according to critics such as Shiell.

The Yukon government, naturally enough, has a different explanation. A ban on hands-free calls could confuse visitors from Outside, it says.

Also, having different laws would require more road signs, said the Yukon Party’s Jim Kenyon last week. And, he warned, these signs could create more distractions.

“Frankly, I think that’s ridiculous,” says Shiell.

The Yukon does plan to ban hands-free calls for young drivers. This strikes Shiell as inconsistent.

It’s true that youth are more likely to be in a motor vehicle accident. It’s also true that youth are more likely to use cellphones.

But most drivers aren’t young.

“Therefore, a smaller proportion of older drivers using cellphones adds up to a bigger danger,” says Shiell. “The biggest problem is still older drivers.”

He also questions whether police are able to enforce age-specific cellphone laws. “It’s hard to tell how old someone is as they drive past you,” says Shiell.

And if Yukon is worried about being inconsistent with other jurisdictions, why introduce a youth-specific rule that isn’t found in the provinces?

“If you’re saying that hands-free versus hand-held is confusing, because drivers cross the border, imagine what adding an age limit will do,” says Shiell. “I’m not buying into that argument.”

The gloomiest minds worry that partial cellphone bans may even make matters worst. Evidence suggests that drivers with hands-free headsets use their phones more frequently and for longer durations.

If new driving laws encourage the proliferation of these headsets, it’s conceivable that the accident rate could rise.

Shiell has mixed feelings. “On the one hand, I’d like to see some legislation rather than none.

“On the other hand, if we’re going to allow hands-free, what’s going to happen is people are going to switch to a hands-free set, so the law doesn’t have any impact whatsoever.”

Alberta’s proposed law has the saving grace of also banning distracting activities like eating, grooming and reading while driving. So, even if the phone ban doesn’t reduce accidents, it’s conceivable that these other measures will, says Shiell.

But a complete ban of dialing while driving would be much better, he says.

Assuming that just 30 per cent of Alberta’s drivers comply with the province’s proposed law, Shiell estimates there would be 5,000 fewer collisions, 2,000 fewer injuries, and 15 fewer fatalities.

It would cost Alberta $20 million to “rigorously enforce” this law. But it would more than pay for itself, according to Shiell, by cutting $6 million from health-care costs and $30 million from collision cleanups, resulting in net savings of $20 million.

Without rigorous enforcement, it’s likely the law would have little effect, he says.

Yukon’s new law will also outlaw the use of text-transmitting devices while driving. Fines have not yet been set for the new infractions, but the territory will issue a combination of fines and demerit points, says Vern Janz, director of transport services.

The territory also plans to start an education campaign this winter aimed at distracted driving.

Drivers face many distractions, of course. Some, such as radios, unruly pets and children, would be unfathomable to ban in cars.

But talking on the phone is particularly dangerous - far more so than carrying on a conversation with a passenger.

“There’s really good evidence that it’s not the holding of the phone that’s the distraction,” says Shiell. “It’s the nature of the conversation.”

Talking to a disembodied voice is more taxing on your attention, it seems. “Essentially, we can’t multitask,” says Shiell.

“More than 30 studies have shown your peripheral vision closes down. You see less things. You fail to see the stop sign, and you fail to see you’ve crossed over the centre line. And you’re slower to react when you do see them.

“Talking to a passenger is a little bit of a distraction, but not nearly as great as talking on the phone. They can be scanning the road ... or stop the conversation.”

It’s true that it would be difficult for police to enforce a ban on hands-free calls. “But to me, it’s not a good enough reason to not include it in the ban,” says Shiell.

“Including it in the ban sends another signal that says that’s not acceptable. It allows passengers to say, ‘C’mon, don’t be a fool and use the phone, it’s against the law.’ I think there are still merits to banning hands-free.

“If it were up to me, I’d be including both.”

Contact John Thompson at