Distracted drivers, distracted government

By Gauntlet Editorial Board

Applicable to anything defined as a vehicle under Alberta’s Traffic Safety Act (yes, bicycles are vehicles too), the distracted driving legislation — Bill 16 — limits drivers from a massive swath of activities, including the use of a cellular phone (except when contacting emergency response units); a pda, hand-held or wireless electronic devices, radio communication devices, portable audio players, gps systems, video display screens, logistical tracking systems and dispatching systems; a pet or passenger or object that ‘interferes’ with driving; reading, writing, sketching or grooming. In short, the government of Alberta has decided that any type of activity extraneous to driving that involves the use of hands or eyes is problematic behavior and an offence of $172 — payable to your local registry or court (they take debit, credit or cash!).

While Albertans usually prefer less government meddling (we are “strong and free” after all), this bill has broad support. The provincial government is certainly looking out for the safety of its citizens — but it is only doing so after many years of negligence. The fanfare with which Stelmach’s government has announced the legislation should only be seen as a desperate and foul front meant to cover up the fact that Alberta has long lacked effective traffic measures. Distractions are not a newly discovered problem for drivers, they are something that has plagued drivers since the very inception of vehicles themselves, and our government’s response is neither timely nor well-organized, as their marketing campaign for the legislation would have us believe. It is no surprise that the rcmp hands out tickets with unimpeded abandon, since Alberta road culture is an uneducated, aggressive and unruly sort, having been ignored and left to its own devices by the provincial government for so long.

In a province where we are certainly not strangers to the dangers of driving, most conversations about our highways and drivers often reveal that your average citizen has long been fed-up with the province’s harrowing roads. 2005 witnessed 466 casualties and 24,504 injuries due to traffic-related accidents. It took until 2006, where motor vehicles caused 453 casualties and 25,964 injuries, for the Klein government to finally initiate the Alberta Traffic Safety Plan — a decade behind the rest of the nation — in an attempt to curb the mayhem of several years of grisly road-based violence and to meet the targets set out in Canada’s national traffic strategy of 1996, the Canada Road Safety Vision 2010. Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom, the majority of the United States, and all of the provinces (but not the territories) of Canada introduced some variation of distracted driving laws quite a while ago. Thus, although the distracted driving legislation is truthfully a potentially game-changing amendment to the traffic act that could harangue Alberta drivers into a safer vehicular existence — certainly in the public’s benefit — the necessity for such a piece of legislation has existed for quite some time.

For a province with as many roads as ours and with as many traffic accidents as ours, minister of transportation Luke Ouellette’s ‘message,’ “keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road,” might be a powerful statement and a potent judicial sweep of which we find ourselves in favor. But it finds its way to the forefront of legislation too many years and too many lives too late.

The province’s claim that “there is tremendous public support for a distracted driving law” is probably true, especially since distracted driving has long been an issue, but the statement sounds like the punch line to a sick joke 16 years overdue. Thus, although we, the Gauntlet, do find ourselves in approval of Bill 16, we find the government’s extensive disregard for the entire issue for all these years entirely inadmissible. Somewhere down the line, perhaps in any number of the legislature building’s halls, “strong and free” managed to mutate into “better late than never,” and we certainly are not much better for it.

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