Do We Need Laws Against Cell Phones?

This archived article is from July 2001. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

Wireless phones are everywhere. Businesses depend on them. Family members call each other to keep in touch. People use them in public places and when driving.

The down side is that all those beeping noises and loud conversations are downright annoying, and drivers who pay more attention to the phone than the traffic create a hazard to other drivers. Do we need new regulations to protect the public from these problems?

Do Cell Phones Cause Collisions?

As more drivers use wireless phones, there are more collisions where an at-fault driver was on the phone. Today, drivers have a very high exposure to cell phones.

Concerns that use of wireless phones can cause collisions have led to calls to ban or regulate their use in cars. Advocates cite a 1997 article in the New England Journal of Medicine. That report made no claim to prove the devices caused collisions. Moreover, it had several shortcomings. For example:

  • The sample group was small and biased: 699 Toronto drivers, all of whom had a cell phone, and all of whom had been in a collision. In contrast, findings of a Université de Montréal study released in February 2001 were from a random survey of 36,000 drivers.
  • The data were from 1994-95. Since then, exposure has skyrocketed. The number of wireless subscribers in Canada quintupled, from 1.8 million at end of 1994 to
    9 million by March 2001, while licensed drivers rose by 10 per cent and vehicles by only three per cent.
  • The design was flawed. It was based on a model which associated an episode of heavy exercise with an increased risk of heart attacks in middle-aged people. Intermittent use of a device cannot be compared to the functioning of a vital human organ.
  • Some of its assumptions were wrong. For example, it stated that young urban professionals can be expected to have very low collision rates and very safe driving patterns. The opposite is true; younger drivers have more collisions and tend to be more likely to take risks.

If a driver talking on the phone drives through a red light or misses a stop sign, the driver - not the phone - is at fault.

Enforce Existing Laws

Careless driving laws are already in place to prosecute drivers who do not make the driving task their top priority when using a wireless phone. For example, under the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, drivers guilty of driving without due care and attention pay a fine from $200 to $1,000. Offenders also receive demerit points, which can significantly affect their insurance rates. Similar penalties apply in other provinces including Quebec.

A mobile phone ban would undoubtedly be flouted. In addition, regulation could negate the safety benefits of having a phone in the car. When you're stuck in traffic, calling to say you'll be late can reduce stress and make you less inclined to drive aggressively to make up lost time. There are over six million 9-1-1 calls per year from mobile phones to report emergencies and dangerous situations. Indeed, many people want a cell phone in their vehicle specifically for safety reasons.

The Canada Safety Council sees a need for more public awareness and education, and strict enforcement of the existing laws. Tips for drivers with cell phones appear on CSC's Web site and in its defensive driving courses.

Distractions and Multitasking

The inappropriate use of cell phones by drivers is part of a serious traffic safety problem - distractions can be dangerous behind the wheel.

A study released by the American Automobile Association in May 2001 reported that distracted drivers account for about nine per cent of serious crashes. Of that number, 1.5 per cent were using or dialing a cell phone at the time of the crash. In comparison, 11.4 per cent were distracted by adjusting a radio, cassette or CD, and almost 30 per cent were distracted by an outside person, object or event.

Our society has to a great extent condoned multitasking while driving. Most vehicles have cup holders. Many also have complex radios and sound systems. Omnipresent drive-throughs encourage drivers to pick up food and beverages. Drivers eat, discipline their kids, use cell phones and even shave or apply make-up on the road. According to a recent study commissioned by TheSteelAlliance and Canada Safety Council, fully 75 per cent of those surveyed admitted to performing personal or work-related tasks while driving.

Electronic Etiquette Enforcement

Without doubt, wireless phones can be annoying. That is why Industry Canada recently announced it will consider legalizing cell phone silencers or jammers. These devices block signals within a certain radius by preventing phones from contacting cellular radio towers.

Currently it is illegal to interfere with or obstruct radio communication. Jammers may be used only when public safety is at risk, and even then, only with special permission: for example, where terrorists could use a cell phone to detonate explosives.

A survey found that nearly 70 per cent of respondents supported the use of jammers in places of worship, libraries and movie theatres. But when it comes to establishments like shopping malls, night clubs and restaurants, about the same number oppose them.

In noisy malls or bars, a discreetly used phone does not disturb other patrons. On the other hand, in a church, library or theatre, people are expected to respect the need for quiet. Beeping phones and needless talking are poor etiquette.

Cinemas have mostly solved the problem with ads telling people to turn off their phones. Some restaurants have signs asking diners to refrain from cell phone conversations. A standard sign requesting patrons to turn off their wireless devices might be a good idea. However, rudeness is not the fault of the phone.

In addition to the fact that jamming may block out emergency calls, the other safety issue is that the legalization of silencing devices will lead to increased availability. Most churches, libraries and theatres are unlikely to dedicate money to buy the technology. Malls and night clubs will see no need. So, where would silencers be used? Criminals sometimes cut the hardwiring to a home in a robbery. Will silencers be used to cut off wireless communication when committing crimes?

Limiting the use of certain technologies to security and military applications is an accepted convention. In the case of silencers, the public interest is best served by maintaining the status quo.