Distracted drivers pose serious danger to walkable communities

Stronger penalties designed to protect pedestrians and cyclists won't be in place for another two years, says province.

A makeshift memorial set up on Gottingen Street for Thomas "Willard" Comeau, who was killed last week by a truck driver. - VIA @HUSKERMOULD ON TWITTER
A makeshift memorial set up on Gottingen Street for Thomas "Willard" Comeau, who was killed last week by a truck driver.

In October, the McNeil government announced Nova Scotia’s Motor Vehicle Act would be updated with changes that aim to better protect street and highway workers (including police officers and other emergency personnel), cyclists and pedestrians.

But road users better be patient.

Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines said it’ll take about two years before new regulations are in place under the Traffic Safety Act, the province’s planned replacement of its antiquated legislation.

Aside from increased fines, drivers convicted of injuring a person deemed vulnerable would be subject to an automatic license suspension of up to six months, The Canadian Press has reported.

The proposed new law would also “clamp down on the use of devices that lead to distracted driving,” CP said. Revisions would stipulate any device, such as a cellphone or global-positioning gizmo, must only be used on a hands-free basis.

Most road workers, pedestrians and bicycle riders know this about inattentive driving: there’s more to careless and unsafe vehicle use than being distracted by your phone.

For those taking part in active transportation, such as walking or cycling to work or school, there are other hazardous, distracted-driving things for which to be on the lookout.

There’s driving while impaired, checking on children inside the vehicle, reaching for a dropped item, looking at a map, petting a dog, applying makeup, eating or drinking and exhibiting a plain lack of concentration behind the wheel, among other examples.

On Prince Edward Island, the RCMP last summer publicly called for more attentive driving after a young motorist crashed her vehicle while reaching for a sandwich. No one was seriously hurt.

Months earlier, a driver was spotted on the Macdonald Bridge in metro constantly taking her eyes off the bridge deck to look down—a common phone-use indicator—during the entire crossing from the Halifax side to the Dartmouth toll plaza.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada says three out of four drivers in this country have admitted they’ve driven while distracted. It says motorists are 23 times more likely to crash if they are texting while driving.

According to the Canadian Automobile Association, 33 percent of drivers have acknowledged texting while stopped at a red light despite believing it’s unacceptable to do so.

Spring 2018 marked the 10-year anniversary of Nova Scotia’s law banning cell phone conversations or texting while operating a vehicle. By any measure, the road-safety rule isn’t resonating with many drivers. In 2016, distracted driving contributed to 140 fatal or serious crashes in the province, the RCMP said in March, 2017.

Motorists, of course, are aware of all the distracted, device-loving walkers out there—pedestrians who cross streets looking down at their portable screens.

Last month, city hall’s active transportation advisory committee hosted a couple of speakers who addressed the impact of distracted driving on active transportation.

One of them, Scott MacDonald of Halifax Regional Police, told the group road use and safe travel are shared responsibilities. In an interview, he acknowledged driving-while-texting offenders are missing that and other public-safety messages.

“It’s just not worth it—ever—to be on a phone or reply to a text while you’re behind the wheel,” MacDonald says. “You just never know on your journey what you might encounter, or what might be going on.”

Last year, the police department’s traffic-enforcement unit—just that division, not the entire force—issued 834 tickets to drivers using their cell phones, MacDonald says. Cell phone usage is “absolutely top of the list” of violations for that unit.

Between January and October of this year, 216 collisions between vehicles and pedestrians or cyclists were reported to police. Of those, 159 involved people on foot.

Four pedestrians died this past year after being struck by vehicles, with the most recent occurring on December 14 when a man was hit and killed by a truck on Gottingen Street.

There were no pedestrian fatalities in the Halifax region in 2017.

City hall’s 2014-19 active transportation plan calls for “walkable communities” and improved cycling infrastructure. An information report from municipal staff, presented to Halifax council on December 4, recommends plans for a network of bike lanes be delayed until 2022.

The Halifax Cycling Coalition sees distracted driving as a serious issue afflicting active transportation. Safety is paramount, a spokesperson said last month.

“If we want to be able to tell people that it’s safe to cycle, you have to have an option that is safe—that is a separated (biking) facility,” Sarah Manchon, chair of the coalition’s board of directors, tells The Coast.

She said this could include a separated bike lane “protected by barriers or...a (constructed) path that’s separated” from vehicle traffic.

Manchon, who works in the north end and uses her bicycle all year, said she’s had lots of close calls while biking. She said the potential damaging effects of distracted driving can be mitigated by improved cycling infrastructure.

“When there is no safe route for people who want to walk or bike (and) where the infrastructure is lacking and where the exposure to unsafe driving is high, our mobility is limited.”

“Better legislation and enforcement” regarding the rules of the road, will “certainly make some kind of improvement,” says Manchon.

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