Cedric Stephens | Mobile phones still a driving hazard

The driver of a big, white, left-hand drive Toyota truck it was probably a Tundra nearly killed my wife and me on Shortwood Road in Kingston a few days ago. The gross weight, of that vehicle is about 3.5 tons or 7,000 pounds. Our 1998cc engine vehicle weighs 2,950 pounds.

I recall the details of the near collision very clearly. I was driving in a northerly direction on the main road. The other driver, a man, was travelling easterly along Houston Avenue, a minor road. He failed to stop at the traffic sign. It is on the left side of the road, a few feet away from where the two roads meet.

The driver was distracted. He was focused on a mobile-phone conversation. He did not look to his left or my direction, not even when his vehicle entered the main road. The truck made a right turn across the front of my car. I could clearly see the blue screen of his phone, which he held in his left hand to his left ear in the landscape position, when the truck was parallel to my car. My vehicle was stationary. He drove in a southerly direction down Shortwood Road.

Today’s article was triggered by that event. Similar incidents occur many times each day across Jamaica. Some of them result in collisions and even deaths. From my casual observations, and even though the recently passed Road Traffic Act bans the use of hand-held devices and imposes heavy fines for violations, many persons on our roads behave as though the law does not exist. They, like the driver of the Tundra, ignore the risks linked to distracted driving. Shouldn’t smart drivers start the process of weaning themselves from using cell phones while driving before the authorities begin to enforce the new law?

Where are the opponents to the law and the size of the fines? Have they begun to change their behaviour? Do they have an alternative and more effective strategy to deal with distracted driving on Jamaica’s roads? If they had a near-death experience like my wife and I did, would they remain opposed to the law?

Research suggests that men and young drivers are particularly prone to a condition called optimism bias a.k.a., it couldn’t happen to me. Perhaps some of them fall in this group.

The new law poses threats to individuals and to companies. Could an employer who provides an employee with a company cell phone to conduct business escape legal responsibility while that person was using the device and became involved in a collision due to distracted driving? What are the insurance implications?

I do not know the answers, but I am pretty sure that some newly minted graduates from the law schools will find them – very soon.

Sources tell me that the form used to capture data about motor vehicle accidents at our police stations was revised to find out about cell-phone use. The authorities are also said to be developing the capacity to routinely check if the information that is provided by the driver about cell-phone use in the form is accurate.

The new law has made the two locally produced booklets on the road code obsolete. Because of this, I have had to look overseas to find a reliable source of information to share with readers in relation to the section of our law that prohibits the use of hand-held cell phones. The points that are listed below were obtained from the United Kingdom’s Highway Code:

– You MUST exercise proper control of your vehicle always;

– You MUST NOT use a hand-held mobile phone, or similar device, when driving or when supervising a learner-driver, except in a genuine emergency when it is unsafe or impractical to stop;

– Never use a hand-held microphone when driving.

– Using hands-free equipment is also likely to distract your attention from the road. It is far safer not to use any telephone while you are driving or riding. find a safe place to stop first, or use the voicemail facility and listen to messages later.

– There is a danger of driver distraction being caused by in-vehicle systems such as satellite navigation systems, congestion warning systems, PCs, multimedia, etc;

– You MUST exercise proper control of your vehicle always. Do not rely on driver assistance systems such as cruise control or lane departure warnings. They are available to assist, but you should not reduce your concentration levels.

– Do not be distracted by maps or screen-based information (such as navigation or vehicle-management systems) while driving or riding. If necessary, find a safe place to stop.

Although cell phones are so common, there is no local data about how many accidents, injuries, and deaths are caused by drivers or other road users who are distracted while using them or other devices. When I checked the claim form of a leading motor insurer, there was no reference to them.

The US Centers for Disease Control & Preventions mention three main types of distractions:

– Visual: taking one’s eyes off the road;

– Manual: taking one’s hands off the wheel; and

– Cognitive: taking one’s mind off from driving.

“Anything that takes your attention away from driving can be a distraction. Sending a text message, talking on a cell phone, using a navigation system, and eating while driving are a few examples of distracted driving. Any of these distractions can endanger the driver and others. Texting while driving is especially dangerous because it combines all three types of distraction. Sending or reading a text message takes your eyes off the road for about five seconds, long enough to cover a football field while driving at 55mph,” the CDC said.

Local authorities should move swiftly to start enforcing the new law. People are being injured and killed every day.

– Cedric E. Stephens provides independent information and advice about the management of risks and insurance. For free information or counsel, write to: aegis@flowja.com

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