Alberta enacts toughest distracted driving law in North America

The Alberta version of a distracted driver law may come long after province's like Ontario, but it's probably the toughest in Canada and perhaps North America.

The law, Bill 16, comes into effect tomorrow (Sept. 1) and sets out a $172 fine for texting or talking on a mobile device while driving to programming GPS devices or watching DVDs - all the usual suspects.

It sounds reasonable at the outset and the government defends it. After all, there' s no demerit points unlike Saskatchewan where a conviction will cost you four.

"I am confident this new law, which is practical and enforceable, will help to keep Albertans safer," said Minister of Transportation Luke Ouellette in a CBC article.

But Bill 16 seems to be the most comprehensive law in North America.

The law also bans eating, teeth brushing, shaving, hair combing, writing, sketching or applying makeup - all activities one would consider a distraction. But reading email in parking lots or calling home while parked in a drive-through would still constitute distracted driving in Alberta, and would even apply to bike couriers.

National Post blogger Jesse Kline doesn't agree with Alberta's late ride to the distracted driver saloon, arguing science deflates the theory bans on cellphone use decrease crashes.

"It doesn't matter that the law won't actually make the roads safer. Governments don't need a problem to exist, in order to try and fix it."

Kline's point is simple. Between 2005 and 2009, cellphones in Alberta homes increased by 31 per cent, following a 170 per cent increase between 1997 and 2005, based on Statistics Canada data.

But between 2005 and 2009, the number of casualties caused by traffic collisions decreased by 22 per cent, meaning there's no connection between cellphone use and crashes.

He also notes a 2010 study in the U.S. found no decrease in insurance claims following implementation of distracted driving laws in states like California and New York.

Opponents also argue cellphone bans are hard to enforce because it's difficult for police to determine what was actually going on in a moving vehicle.

Kline suggests, "In Alberta, such questions may be a moot point, because the law is broad enough to encompass all forms of distracted driving, even when someone is not technically driving."

Even well-known Calgary Herald columnist Robert Remington weighed into the debate with a little sarcasm in his blog by posting a variety of videos of things Alberta drivers won't be able to do behind the wheel after Thursday.

Remington aptly notes in his selection playing the ukulele, guitar, or the saxophone will likely net you a charge under the new law and higher insurance premiums.

(CBC Photo)