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Technology could stop distracted driving

Steps must be taken to dissuade drivers from illegally using cellphones while behind the wheel to prevent the risk of injury to other motorists or pedestrians, says an editorial by two Canadian doctors.

Dr. Barry Pless and son Dr. Charles Pless of Montreal say although there is still scientific uncertainty about the link between cellphone use while driving and the risk of collisions, the proliferation of mobile phones means distracted driving is undoubtedly on the rise.

A number of studies over the last two decades have had mixed findings as to whether conversing or texting on a mobile phone while driving boosts the risk of having a motor vehicle accident.

But the editorial argues that the potential for injuring or killing other people due to distracted driving means policy makers must not wait for "solid proof" before acting.

While hands-free cellphone use in the driver's seat is probably the least risky activity, followed by conversing with a phone to one's ear, "texting is most dangerous — terrifyingly so," said Barry Pless, professor emeritus of pediatrics and epidemiology at McGill University.

Public education campaigns may have some effect but are unlikely to stop all drivers from taking out their mobiles — a goal that has not even been achieved by legislation across Canada that bans the use of cellphones while behind the wheel, Pless said Tuesday from Montreal.

"So part of the responsibility lies with the law makers to make sure the penalties are severe," he said, noting that New York state has proposed legislation that would double a young driver's licence suspension from the current six months for texting while operating a vehicle.

"If you're a kid and you know you're going to lose your licence for a year ... and you have a reasonable expectation of being caught, then one hopes that you will be persuaded not to do it."

According to the Canadian Automobile Association website, provincial fines range from a high of $400 in P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador, with the loss of three to four demerit points respectively, to a low of $115-$154 in Quebec, with three demerit points lost. Ontario's fine is $155 with no lost demerit points, the CAA site shows.

Pless said if a driver believes there's a good chance he or she won't be caught by police using a cellphone and the penalty isn't significant, "then who cares? Then you'll keep on."

Paradoxically, that leaves technology as the best solution for curbing the use of mobile technology, the editorial suggests.

That could include software that prevents texting while driving set as a factory default; mobile phone pull-out areas with free Wi-Fi access; automatic messages informing callers the recipient is driving; and a sensor such as a signal-jamming key that prevents cellphone reception in a vehicle.

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