Canada’s wireless lobby confident safe driving message being understood Recent moves by two Canadian provincial governments to push aside proposed legislation that would ban the use of handheld cell phones while driving is evidence, says Canada’s wireless lobby, that its safe driving message is getting through. The Alberta government defeated a private member’s bill and the government in Ontario has taken a private member’s bill, sponsored by MPP John O’Toole, off the order paper. Newfoundland and Labrador is the only jurisdiction still considering such a ban. It is currently in summer recess and any new action won’t be taken until at least the fall. The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) supports the use of hands-free devices while driving, and discourages the use of handheld devices. It urges drivers to pull over if they need to use a handheld phone. Peter Barnes, CWTA president and CEO, says the issue boils down to driver distraction. "All the provinces and territories have laws on their books that prohibit driving without due care and attention," he explains. "That’s really the generic distraction hook that the police can use and do use in some cases." Despite the recent government action, there is mounting, if contradictory, evidence that talking on cell phones while driving does increase the chances of causing or getting into an accident. The Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) and the University of Montreal recently released studies indicating heavy cell phone users have 38 per cent more accidents. Barnes says the mainstream press has bandied about this figure, but the papers aren’t telling the whole picture. What they also forget to mention is that "light cell phone users have no more accidents than non-cell phone users," he tells Report on Wireless. The TIRF presents some interesting figures on public perception of cell phone use while driving, but it doesn’t really present any concrete evidence that cell phone use causes a higher percentage of accidents than other distractions. Barnes notes that some of its findings, in fact, seem to support the CWTA’s position that cell phones present no more greater risk to driver distraction than other distractions such as adjusting the radio/CD player or disciplining children in the backseat. The TIRF report indicates that a study for the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety found that after examining the detailed crash records of 32,000 drivers, using/dialing a cell phone accounted for 1.5 per cent of reported distractions. That compares to 29.4 per cent for events outside of the vehicle, 11.4 per cent for adjusting the radio/tape/CD player, and 10.9 per cent for interacting with other occupants of the vehicle. More recently, Transport Canada released a study that demonstrated the use of hands-free devices might not be as safe as previously believed. By asking drivers increasingly difficult questions, the study proved that drivers spend less time paying attention to the road and other driving functions. Comprehensive studies show cell phone use has little effectBarnes discounts much of the evidence that has been presented lately on the subject, saying the studies are really only skimming the key issues. Of the Transport Canada study, he says it dealt with primarily the differences between handheld and hands-free devices and the sample size was too small to be considered an accurate assessment. He points to two studies conducted in the United States that get to the heart of the issue, which is how many accidents were caused by drivers being distracted by cell phone use. These two broader studies were carried out in the last few months – one by the State of Pennsylvania, the other by the University of North Carolina on behalf of the American Automobile Association. Both of them delved into the root causes of accidents by first looking at the causes, then identifying distractions, then ultimately ranking each distraction. In both studies, accidents attributed to cell phone use were below the five per cent mark. "So that just reinforces our view that the issue is driver distraction," Barnes says. The wireless industry’s top lobbyist admits that it is a challenge sometimes to fight public perception. The TIRF report indicates that 49.9 per cent of Canadians believe there should be a ban on cell phones while driving. The CWTA currently uses a combination of a public service announcement and a video entitled Driven to Distraction to give drivers safety tips. Barnes says there has been considerable success with the video as it is now currently running in every Daimler Chrysler dealership in the country. Additionally, the Quebec government’s TV educational authority has made the video available to all teachers across the province. Educating young drivers is probably the biggest opportunity to get the right message out, Barnes notes. "Education is a longer-term issue, and we’re working on getting it in the driving schools, as part of our alliance with Young Drivers of Canada," he says. The CWTA’s safe driving message has remained the same for the past several years, and Barnes has no plans to revisit it, despite the emergence of a whole gamut of new in-vehicle electronics products. "The generic message is the same," he explains. "When you’re behind the wheel, your first responsibility is to drive safely. "All of those of things, whether it be disciplining children in the backseat or conducting a business deal with a passenger or on the phone or looking at a map on a GPS screen or whether it’s a paper version, that’s not the time for it," he states.