A man sits behind the wheel texting

Sudbury Star file photo

Dale Tennier sent a text message from his Blackberry just after 7 p.m. on Oct. 20, 2010.

Seconds later, his car slammed into a traffic light standard on Barrydowne Road.

Tennier, who was not wearing his seatbelt, was taken to hospital, where the 42-year-old Greater Sudbury man was pronounced dead.

Police called the tragedy completely avoidable, and reminded the public that using a hand-held communication device while driving was not only illegal, but potentially fatal.

Six years later, however, it seems many have not received that message, or simply choose to ignore it.

Cst. Dann Kingsley, a technical traffic collision investigator in the Greater Sudbury Police Service traffic management unit, has seen first-hand the disastrous consequences of distracted driving. Yet collisions in the city are trending up for the first time in decades, he said, coinciding with increased use of smartphones and other mobile devices.

“Despite all the safety mechanisms, antilock brakes, and all the stuff they’re building into cars right now, collisions are starting to spike again,” Kingsley said. “The only obvious factor would be distraction. We get 4,000, 5,000 collisions a year at the collision reporting centre, and absolutely everyone comes in and declares they were not using their cellphone.”

He sees a different picture, however, when he drives local roads. Whether he’s on duty in an unmarked car, or off-duty in his own vehicle, Kingsley sees driver after driver, talking or texting behind the wheel.

“I pulled up to the four corners on Monday, on my day off, and the drivers on either side of me had their phones out – one was talking, one was texting – and I could see someone across the intersection from me on their phone. I’m like, ‘You’re kidding me, right?’ ”

Enforcement efforts and increased fines, as well as studies that have shown texting and driving can be even worse than drinking and driving, may make some think twice before reaching for their device. But many others are apparently willing to take the risk.

“Everybody wants safe streets and everybody wants everyone else to get off their cellphones, but they feel that they’re the exception – ‘I’m just making a quick call’ or ‘I’m just sending a quick text,’ ” Kingsley said.

“Unless you’re in a big marked police vehicle, you’ll see it everywhere. Even with the marked cars, I’ll pull up at an intersection and again, because they’re so distracted, I’ll pull up at an intersection and I’m in a fully marked, police package Chev Tahoe, and they’re on their phone, right on front of me, on their lap, texting.”

During blitzes, officers can actually walk between cars during red lights, unnoticed until they tap on the offending driver’s window.

Drivers may think they are safe texting at red lights, Kingsley said, but with heads down, they’re unaware of what’s happening around them.

By not responding quickly to signal changes, they may also cause delays, traffic congestion, and add to the stress level of fellow motorists – never helpful on busy roads.

“The last information we have is that you’re actually safer to be a drunk driver than to be a texter, because at least a drunk driver is watching the road, they’re trying,” Kingsley said. “You put your head down and you send a four-second text, and you have covered what, 50, 60 metres with nobody driving your vehicle, because that’s essentially what’s happening.”

Because drivers usually deny being on their phones, it’s difficult for police to know just how many collisions are caused by distracted driving. Except in serious collisions that cause injury or death, it can be difficult to obtain a court order for phone records.

Emerging technology such as the textalyzer could be a useful in that it will tell officers when a phone was used for emails, calls or text messages, without a further invasion of privacy. A bill was introduced in the New York State Senate earlier this year to allow use of textalyzers there.

Meanwhile, research continues into distracted driving, including a joint project involving Laurentian University and the Sudbury and District Health Unit.

Victoria Foglia is a master’s student in experimental psychology at Laurentian who has been working on the project, which has revealed disturbing trends, but also promising strategies for reducing the behaviour among youth.

“The project started with four studies and we found the results so interesting that other studies have continued to branch off, because it’s obviously such a prevalent issue right now that we just keep coming up with more ideas, more things that we can test” Foglia said.

A key part of the project was a survey involving youth aged 16-24, 48 per cent of whom admitted to texting and driving, though those same youth also felt guilty about doing so and even felt unsafe if they were passengers in vehicles where someone else was texting and driving.

“We knew that 16 to 24 years old was the highest age group that was at risk for texting and driving-related incidents, but what we found with our results, if you look more specifically, it’s mostly people who are in their early 20s,” Foglia said. “What we found from all the demographic information was when you’re in your early 20s, you’re no longer at a G1 or a G2 licence, so you’re at your G, you have gained a little bit of confidence in your driving, you no longer have to drive with your mom or dad, and that’s where we see people from saying no, they don’t text and drive, to yes.

“I think this is interesting, because if we are going to look at possible prevention strategies, I would think that we should start quite young, before they are fully G licensed.”

Significantly, many or those surveyed to admitted to texting and driving also said it would take a ticket, or even a crash, to make them stop.

On the positive side, an eye-tracking study focused on advertising revealed text-based ads warning against texting and driving were most effective when clear and text-based. New technology in vehicles that prevents the sending or receiving of messages has also shown promise, as has experience with texting and driving through simulators.

“You can see where gaps of knowledge are and where more research needs to be done,” Foglia said. “From the study, we can see that in their early 20s, that’s when the start texting and driving, so maybe that’s when we need to start giving presentations in school. Maybe, when they go for their G licence, maybe they need to complete a task that shows them the consequences of texting and driving. We can see when people are most at risk and where improvement needs to be, and that’s really the goal of research, to see where we need to improve and where to go next.”

Source: The Sudbury Star