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Russell Wangersky: Oblivious behind the wheel

Cellphone use while driving is a serious problem.
Cellphone use while driving is a serious problem.

Exmouth Street is a little feeder street in St. John's, a handy residential shortcut from one main road to another where drivers always seem to go faster than they should, not having made the transition yet from arterial to mere capillary. You don’t really need to know much more about it than that.

Russell Wangersky

It’s a street in a city neighbourhood where one house inexplicably boasts two small yet noble weathered concrete lions on its front wall, where the owners of another otherwise non-descript two-storey house sometimes have a hefty live pig, black and white, on a leash in its front yard, where two or three houses boil out teams of backpack-laden kids as loud as starlings at almost the exact same time every weekday morning.

It’s the kind of street where even the changing detritus of life tells a new small story every few days or so: a set of ear bud headphones, fallen from some pocket, slowly being reduced day-by-day to broken plastic and wire by being run over; an overnight parking ticket, angrily torn from under a wiper and reducing itself to pulp in the gutter; once, a smashed computer hard-drive, leaking its secrets.

On Tuesday, there was an alluvial fan of dozens of Q-Tips running downhill with the meltwater, the cotton tips black with street dirt. It wasn’t clear if it was the result of a garbage day explosion or a more sinister beautician’s accident — “When Pedicures Go Rogue.”

Also on Tuesday, I experienced the perfect walker’s trifecta: anyone who has survived urban or even rural road walking knows that walking for health is always a fine balance between fitness and random automotive annihilation.

The city, apparently, couldn’t be bothered to brush the now-melting snow back far enough to open up the road for two-way traffic. Coming towards me in a small black car was a driver, his face down towards his lap, looking at his phone, who couldn’t be bothered to drive safely. I jumped out of the way, only to land with both feet in a pile of dog crap that some dog owner couldn’t be bothered to stoop and scoop.

Of all those displays of uncaring humanity, there’s only one that kills.

Driving drunk — drunk on technology, that is.

Earlier this week, federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau called for the provinces to agree on a uniform and tough standard to increase penalties on distracted drivers. It’s not a moment too soon. In the Atlantic region, the penalties range from $100 to $1,200. It’s not enough, given the prevalence of cellphone-using and texting drivers, and the sheer volume of accidents they cause. The fines have to be massive enough to garner attention. It would be an excellent thing for all of the provinces to jump on board with.

Techno-drunk-driving should be like other forms of impaired driving: if you’re in an accident while you are on the phone or texting, you should be immediately the one at fault. When a phone is involved, fines and penalties should immediately double. Your insurance company should be informed that your driving behaviour constitutes a risk, and your insurance costs should rise because of that — because you are a risk to everyone else.

I was walking along, looking at trivial things, fully aware of my surroundings, of where I was and what I was doing.

The driving who came close to hitting me? I imagine he, like most of us and the regular things we find on our cellphones day by day, was looking at trivial things, too: plans for later, groceries that needed buying, a video of a dancing horse.

But he was at the wheel of a ton of vehicle, moving fast, without even the benefit of reaction time.

Maybe tomorrow, I’ll be the run-over detritus.

I hope not. But, given how little we seem to be willing to bother with other people’s safety, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at — Twitter: @Wangersky

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