It may have been March Break for most elementary and high school students in the province, but the OPP wasn’t offering any ‘breaks’ to drivers using cell phones.
From March 13 to March 19, Ontario Provincial Police detachments across the province conducted annual safety blitzes with distracted driving as the primary focus. The Distracted Driving Campaign served as both a crackdown on motorists ignoring Ontario’s cell phone laws as well as an effort to spread awareness on the perils often involved with using devices while operating cars or trucks on public roads and highways.
In Essex County, OPP Traffic Management Unit officers kept a close lookout for driving cell phone users on several roads and highways including but not limited to Highway 3, Highway 77 and Highway 401. While police kept their ticket books handy for distracted drivers focusing too intently on food, books, magazines and hygiene routines, cell phone use continued to serve as their primary focus.
“I’ve seen drivers with a book or map in one hand while barely even looking at the road,” explained Essex County OPP Constable Jeremy Kulwartian during a patrol on the streets and highways of the Tecumseh region. “I’ve seen people applying make-up, using the (rear view) mirror. It’s anything causing you to look away from the road. Cell phones are the biggest problem, though. We’re seeing drivers using them everywhere.”
Both Kulwartian and Essex County OPP media officer Jim Root explained that younger drivers preoccupied with texting and talking on their phones are issues of concern, but also pointed out that older drivers are also frequently found to be offenders of the same distracted driving habits.
“It’s everyone from new drivers to people in their 50s, 60s and 70s,” Kulwartian explained. “This morning (Thursday, March 16), I pulled over an older gentleman who said he had to call his wife because she just had surgery. It can be anybody.”
First-time offenders ticketed for distracting driving in Ontario receive fines of $400 plus a $90 surcharge and court fees while having three demerit points applied to their driver’s licenses. Those who receive a summons or unsuccessfully challenge their ticket in court can be fined an amount of up to $1,000. Prior to Sept. 1 of 2015, the standard fine was $280. Kulwartian has heard several excuses from drivers after they’ve been stopped for distracted driving — none of which he or other OPP officers have accepted as legitimate.
“I’ve heard about being late for work and having to call the office, the kids are sick, having to call their wives because they’re running late for something… any excuse you can think of,” he said. “Some are apologetic, some get angry. We hear a lot say that they don’t usually do this.”
Ontario’s distracted driving laws and fines were originally introduced in 2009, although Root pointed out that the widespread use of cell phones on provincial roads doesn’t appear to be diminishing. For each year from 2013 to 2016, distracted driving led what the OPP describes as “The Big Four” in contributing to fatal automotive collisions. Last year, 65 deaths in OPP-investigated crashes were attributed to inattentive drivers compared to 55 that were speed related, 53 resulting from the failure to properly use seat belts and 45 that were alcohol-related.
Kulwartian pointed out that distracted driving has caused incidents ranging from vehicles being rear ended to head-on collisions and single-vehicle crashes where drivers have over corrected after realizing they’ve drifted out of their own lanes. When cell phone use is suspected in cases where collisions have caused fatalities, warrants are often issued to obtain usage records from service providers. Since 2009, distracted driving related deaths have exceeded those attributed to speed and alcohol on OPP-patrolled roads every year except 2012.
“It’s terrible that people don’t see the importance of concentrating on their driving,” said Root. “The numbers are actually going up. People can’t seem to put them (their cell phones) down. The need to be connected is like an addiction.”
Kulwartian noted that Essex County doesn’t appear to have a specific region where distracted driving is more prevalent than in others. He explained that more tickets are issued in Windsor because of the higher concentration of traffic, but there is no specific community where inattentive driving is worse on a per capita basis.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a back road or the 401 — it’s happening everywhere,” he said. “City or county, where ever there’s traffic, we’re finding people on their cell phones.”
Making matters worse, Kulwartain explained that drivers are occasionally found committing multiple Big Four infractions simultaneously.
“I’ve stopped people speeding while on their cells with no seat belts,” he said. “I pulled someone over for doing 180 (km/hr) on the 401 while they were on their cell. There were five people in the car, including an eight-year-old sitting on someone’s lap.”
Addressing some of the distracted driving law’s grey areas, Kulwartian and Root explained that the use of cell phones and similar devices is not permitted at red traffic lights or stop signs. Such electronic devices are allowed while drivers are sitting in lines at restaurant drive through areas and once they’ve pulled over onto the shoulder of the roads they’re driving on, provided they’ve moved over far enough to be safe from moving traffic.
“What we’re trying to accomplish isn’t just about handing out tickets,” Kulwartian said. “It’s about awareness. Sometimes we get drivers — some out of towners — who say they don’t know about the law, but ignorance is not an excuse.”
Headsets, Bluetooth devices and dashboard-applied mounts are permitted for use in a moving vehicle, as are GPS devices — as long as they allow for hands-free usage and do not compromise the driver’s ability to concentrate on his or her surroundings.
“Bluetooth systems are allowed, but even with just talking, there’s some distraction,” said Root. “No distractions at all are what’s best if you’re driving.”
For more information on the guidelines describing what practices are permissible and prohibited, visit the website page http://www.mto.gov.on.ca/english/safety/distracted-driving-faq.shtml#penalties.
The Essex County OPP issued several tickets during last week’s Distracted Driving Campaign, although precise statistics were not available by press deadline.
“We’ve got a great traffic unit,” Root said. “They love doing their jobs and they’re very dedicated to making Essex County roads safer.”