Send Texting Drivers a Message


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Enormous fines would make most drivers think twice before using hand-held mobile phones while at the wheel

Texting while driving - Dan Gill New York Times File Photo, Photo by Dan Gill

MONTREAL – Late last month, near the city’s half-completed new bus terminal, I briefly witnessed something that’s a not-uncommon occurrence on the streets of Montreal. In the northbound right-hand turning lane at the very busy and dangerous intersection of Ontario and Berri Sts., a car failed to advance at the moment the long-anticipated green light appeared. Those waiting behind began honking, but the driver neglected to pull away. The interchange’s light ran its full cycle with the driver never once putting his foot to the gas pedal. The delinquent motorist was totally distracted by texting on his smartphone – wholly oblivious to the traffic surrounding him.

Where, I thought, are the police?

Later that same day, I re-read Gazette reporter René Bruemmer’s story “Texting and driving a deadly mixture” (Dec. 21). I found myself wondering why the authorities are having such difficulty bringing this vexing and dodgy phenomenon under some semblance of control. Perhaps the consequences are not sufficiently severe. The police may think that imposing a $115 fine and three demerit points is not worth their while.

I have a fervour for early-20th-century city history, so I decided to check out how Edwardian Montrealers dealt with irresponsible drivers on the thoroughfares. I was surprised by what I learned. Granted, there were not that many motorized vehicles on city streets during the first decade of the last century, but those that were around often ran afoul of the law. For speeding and creating dust clouds on the city’s dirt roads, drivers were frequently the subject of negative newspaper reports, and often the focus of angry pedestrians.

When bad drivers were caught, fines were severe. A newspaper report of Sept. 4, 1906, recounted how one Montreal motorist was fined $20 and costs, or one month in jail, for driving at 18 miles (29 kilometres) an hour instead of the legal six miles (10 kilometres) an hour. One year later, two others were fined the same sum for a similar infraction. They were also threatened with double the amount if they were brought before the courts again for the same offence.

Twenty dollars in 1906 would be the equivalent of nearly $500 in today’s currency. One wonders how long drivers would ignore today’s law against texting while driving (or talking on a hand-held mobile phone) if they were threatened with a $500 sanction. Not too long, I suspect.

Penalties are much harsher in some other countries. In Norway, texting or talking on a hand-held device while driving brings you a fine that’s the equivalent of $600. In the Netherlands, the penalty for cellphone use while driving is €2,000 ($2,600), or two weeks in jail. I bet very few people are nattering away while driving in that country.

All of us of a certain age can recall the bilingual notices on Montreal’s tramways and buses cautioning passengers not to speak with the driver as “Safe Driving Requires Their Full Attention.” Today, even some city bus drivers can be seen talking on hand-held mobile phones while driving their sometimes-crowded vehicles. When this is brought to the attention of the Société de transport de Montréal it promises “a full investigation,” but the consequences for the offending driver, if any, are considered a private matter. Not surprisingly, the sightings continue unabated.

Higher fines for using a hand-held mobile phone while driving are not a cash grab, as libertarians and other government-phobic people are inclined to argue. It is a question of public safety, nothing else. If it takes significantly higher fines and greater police vigilance to enforce the law effectively, so be it.

As the Montreal Star argued in an editorial about “the automobile nuisance” in October 1908: “A petty fine is nothing to the wealthy owner of a powerful car; and it is not at all an adequate punishment for taking the risk of manslaughter.”

Sources say that a 24-year-old Gatineau man has been fined more than $2,300 for reckless driving.

Police intercepted a driver, who they suspected was impaired shortly before 11 p.m. Jan.6 on Hwy. 307.

Police say the driver was passing vehicles dangerously and narrowly avoided a head-on collision.

Officers had to pull alongside the driver’s door in order to signal the driver they wanted to pull over.

Police say the suspect turned out not be driving impaired but was texting on a cellphone — while at speeds of up to 90 km/h.

The driver was issued eight infractions, culminating in a $2,378 fine and 13 demerit points.

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