Canadian Underwriter

The Great Cell Debate

September 1, 2001   by Vikki Spencer

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Both sides of the cell phone debate make a good case. Those opposing the ban point out that cell phones are not the only distraction faced by drivers. Will we ban drive-through hamburgers and noisy children in the back seat next? Another argument is that there is little evidence linking cell phone use to car crashes.

This, however, could change with recent studies in Canada showing that cell phones are the distraction the public perceives them to be. Proponents of cell phone restrictions observe that this form of wireless communication technology is only the beginning. Today’s cell phones are already being replaced by on-board tracking systems, computers capable of delivering fax and email, DVD players and televisions. In the push to give drivers more “toys”, the question becomes, how much distraction is too much?

Several provinces are addressing the cell phone issue, although none have taken New York’s lead and put restrictions in place. The New York ban, which applies only to hand-held phones, has sparked reaction across the U.S., with the majority of states and the federal government now looking into the issue. Several municipalities have also instituted restrictions through local traffic laws. Notably, more than 20 countries, including Brazil, England, Germany, Australia and Japan, have implemented some sort of ban on driving and cell phones.

Significant risk

Evidence linking cell phone use and car accidents has been sketchy until recently. A 1997 study of Toronto drivers finds that the risk of collision is four times greater for cell phone users. This study, later published in the New England Journal of Medicine, is the most frequently quoted among proponents of cell phone restrictions. The authors admit, however, that the study cannot show a causal relationship between cell phone use and accidents – only an “increased risk”.

Late last year, researchers at the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) conducted closed-course driving tests to measure the impact of hands-free cell phone use on driving ability. The results “clearly point to potential safety-related problems associated with such things as phone use while driving, even if such use does not involve physical manipulation of the device”. ICBC research psychologist John Vavrik says the underlying significance of the study is that it correlates the risk of a crash while having a cell phone conversation with the difficulty of the driving situation. “The more complex the driving task, the more the conversation on a cell phone interferes with driving performance.”

Early this year, the Societe de l’assurance automobile du Quebec (SAAQ) released a study showing a 38% greater chance of collision for cell phone users versus non-users. While researchers at SAAQ conclude that the Toronto study overestimates the risk of collision, they still find a significant risk does exist, and for heavy cell phone users, that risk could be two times higher than for non-users.

A “no-brainer”

Public sentiment seems to support the research results. At least one poll shows Canadians overwhelmingly support restrictions, with 70% of respondents saying some form of ban should be in place – about 93% regard talking on a cell phone while driving as being a safety hazard. This public groundswell convinced Nova Scotia MPP Jerry Pye to introduce a private member’s bill calling for a ban on hand-held cell phones at this spring’s sitting of the legislature. “Concerned residents’ organizations” prompted him to propose the legislation.

Ontario MPP John O’Toole, who introduced a similar bill, says he has seen “tremendous” support for restricting cell phone use. This includes Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino. Most recently, the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association wrote an editorial urging lawmakers to support a ban, calling the decision a “no-brainer” in light of past research.

But, Pye says one group he did not find support from was insurers. Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) representatives told him there was not sufficient evidence linking cell phones to causes of accidents.

Linda Chiarvesio of the IBC confirms that the bureau is not taking a public stance on the issue, not only because of lack of conclusive evidence, but because the IBC considers cell phones as similar to other distractions drivers should be avoiding. “We support safe driving,” she adds.

“Invasive” technology

O’Toole notes that cell phones are a precursor of even more “invasive” technologies that will divert driver attention, including computers and televisions in cars. And, he admits, with the advance of technology, the issue of enforcing a ban on cell phones or other distractions may grow. Problems with enforceability have caused some countries to repeal past legislation. On the other hand, he argues, the same concerns were raised when seat belt legislation was introduced.

Pye, on the other hand, is concerned that legislators may not be heeding either public will or research study results. “The reports are consistent, it’s a matter of the [cell phone] industry and the government acknowledging this,” he says. Both Pye and O’Toole have encountered resistance from their provincial transportation ministries with respect to their proposed legislation. In Ontario, the Ministry of Transportation says, “…the province already has penalties in place for anyone who drives carelessly, including negligently using a cell phone”. In Nova Scotia, reaction from the transportation ministry, as well as the Department of Public Works, has been much the same.

One factor that stands in the way of a cell phone ban, Pye observes, is the powerful wireless telecommunications industry. Lobbyists for the industry have said, “there is no concrete evidence” linking cell phone use to accidents. “This is an extremely huge industry,” Pye notes. O’Toole also says that the Canadian Wireless Association was “at first completely appalled” by his bill. However, he sees the industry coming to grips with the need to address safety concerns. Legislators and the industry need to address education together, to encourage motorists to act more safely in the absence of formal regulations. Pye remains unsure to whether legislators in Nova Scotia will want to confront the cell phone/driving issue. “Private member’s bills normally don’t succeed.”

Alberta legislators have also shied away from dealing with the cell phone issue. Instead, the province’s new Traffic Act lumps cell phones in with other driver distractions, including eating, drinking, putting on make-up, etc., confirms Eileen McDonald of Alberta Transportation. As regulations for the bill are under discussion, she says a specific ban on cell phones will not be addressed, although distractions in general are being looked at. A government survey shows that 70% of Albertans favor regulations to address distractions, including cell phones. McDonald says it will be “mid-2002” before regulations to support the new act are finalized.

Quebec concerns

The province of Quebec is likely the next epicenter for the brewing cell phone debate. With the release of the SAAQ report, and the very vocal stance taken by Transport Minister Guy Chevrette on public safety issues, the next few months will see cell phone legislation hot on the public agenda. Chevrette recently made headlines, bashing the auto industry for the creation of increasingly higher-powered vehicles and the impact this may have on public safety.

Pierre Chateauvert, chief of staff for the Ministry, says legislation is currently being reviewed in light of the SAAQ study. SAAQ will be making formal recommendations to Chevrette in the near future, based on that study. Chateauvert predicts a decision will be made in the next two or three months. Quebec legislators are also looking closely at other jurisdictions, he notes. The question will be whether to follow the lead of other Canadian provinces in shying away from cell phone legislation, or to travel New York’s “road less traveled”.

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