TORONTO – A driver zooming down a highway in Ottawa while texting with a BlackBerry in his lap is just one of the examples police are citing of people ignoring Ontario’s ban on handheld devices.
As of Thursday, the province’s prohibition on the use of hand-held devices by drivers to talk, email or text unless they’re making a 911 call or have pulled off the road will have been in effect for one month.
Ontario is the fourth province to enact such a ban, following Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec and Nova Scotia, and some motorists still aren’t getting the message, police say.
And at least one big-city police force says the new law has made surreptitious texting in traffic more dangerous than before.
“People one month ago would hold their BlackBerry device either right up to their ear or in front of them on the dashboard and do their texting,” said Toronto police Sgt. Tim Burrows.
“Now they’re trying to hide it, which is taking their eyes away from the road even longer than before.”
In the age of multi-tasking it seems there are those having a hard time giving up a dangerous habit.
Sgt. Al Ferris, with the Ottawa Police Service Traffic Escort Unit, was riding his motorcycle on the Queensway, a 400 series highway, last week when he looked in his rear-view mirror and saw the driver behind him slowing down, gaining on him, then slowing down in the fast lane — all the while looking down between his legs.
“So I stop my bike in the middle of the lane and I went back to him, and sure enough the CrackBerry is right between his legs,” said Ferris.
The driver, who had been going about 120 kilometres an hour, at first denied he was doing anything. The man knew about the legislation but also about the three-month grace period where police are mostly issuing warnings instead of tickets, Ferris added.
Transportation Minister Jim Bradley said he’s heard from police that this has been a good educational period.
“Even the people they’re stopping are pretty sheepish when they’re getting stopped,” said Bradley. “They know they shouldn’t be doing it.”
Starting Feb. 1, Ontario drivers could be fined up to $500 for violating the rules. But drivers who think the three-month education campaign gives them “carte blanche” to keep gabbing and driving well into the winter could face a hard lesson.
While police in Ontario have generally been talking to drivers about staying off the phone instead of handing out tickets, motorists can still be charged.
Provincial police issued 1,109 warnings and 22 tickets for using a hand-held device while driving between Oct. 26 and Monday, Insp. Dave Ross said.
“Police are still cognizant and aware of their ability to issue charges under the new legislation when appropriate,” Ross said.
“The charges were for using a handheld device while driving. So those would have been situations where the officers felt a warning wasn’t appropriate.”
Provincial police have seen people using BlackBerrys and cellphones and drinking coffee at the same time while driving, said Ross, who adds once a cruiser pulls up alongside them, they whip away the phone.
Ottawa police have given out 85 warnings but no tickets. Ferris said without tickets there’s no deterrence for drivers. Police in Windsor and Niagara agree.
“We found that that first week after it was first announced there was a dramatic drop in people committing the offence, compliance was up,” said Det. Sgt. Cliff Priest, who heads the Niagara Regional Police collision reconstruction unit.
“It’s starting to slip now.”
People don’t notice what using hand-held devices does to their driving, but it’s obvious to other motorists, said Sgt. Brett Corey of Windsor police.
“I’ve witnessed it on many occasions where people have either gone through red lights at intersections or rear-ended vehicles because they’re looking down, not paying attention,” said Corey.
“Until people start being charged, then the message really isn’t going to be driven home.”
A lot of people are using the grace period to buy hands-free technology, so the message for most people is getting through, Burrows and Corey said.
Provincial police Const. Dave Woodford, who’s on the road daily in the Greater Toronto Area, says either he’s seeing a high compliance rate or people are just hiding their phones.
“I think that it’s pretty hard to find someone actually on their cellphone,” he said.
“Either that or when they see the police cruiser they’re just getting rid of it before the actual officer sees them using it.”
Excuses people give police include they don’t know about the ban, they’re calling their children or spouse, or they’re using their cellphone for an emergency that doesn’t exist.