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Hang up in Alberta

EDMONTON, Alta. - Alberta is the latest province to jump on the "anti-yakking" law bandwagon. Not only that, but its law is being billed by the province as the most comprehensive such statute in the T...

EDMONTON, Alta. –Alberta is the latest province to jump on the “anti-yakking” law bandwagon. Not only that, but its law is being billed by the province as the most comprehensive such statute in the True North Strong and -er, Free.

Bill 16, also known as the Traffic Safety (Distracted Driving) Amendment Act of 2010, ups the ante on similar legislation across Canada because it not only restricts the use of handheld cell phones while driving, it also covers activities such as texting, reading, writing and personal grooming -the idea being to help prevent “close shaves” on Alberta’s roads. And it appears also to limit a commercial truck driver’s ability to converse with his peers on the CB radio.

Bill 16 states that a driver is not to use a handheld CB radio unless: required to maintain two-way contact with an employer, driving a pilot or escort vehicle, or using the CB to participate in a search and rescue mission.

Tara Peters, a spokesperson with Alberta Transportation’s Office of Traffic Safety, confirmed to Truck West that general chit-chat on the CB radio will be outlawed.

“Drivers, including commercial truck drivers, who are required by their employer to maintain two-way radio communication, for example via a CB radio, may use a hand-held two-way radio communication device for the purposes of contacting their employer while acting within the scope of that individual’s employment,” she told Truck West. “Recreational use of a hand-held two-way radio communication device is not permitted under Bill 16.”

When asked to confirm that a truck driver will be in violation of the law when using the CB radio for conversational purposes, she confirmed: “Yes, the bill specifies that hand-held two-way radios can only be used by drivers who are required by their employer to maintain two-way radio communication for the purposes of contacting their employer while acting within the scope of that individual’s employment.”

“This is a great day for traffic safety in our province,” Minister of Transportation Luke Ouellette said upon announcing the new law, calling the legislation a “bold approach” in that it goes beyond the mere restricting of cell phones by dealing also with the broader issue of distracted driving.

“Our message is clear: Keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road,” he says.

Not surprisingly, the legislation is being greeted positively by its sponsor, former police officer and current MLA for Calgary-Hays Art Johnston.

“I have witnessed the terrible consequences of distracted driving and I am glad we are taking action,” he says, adding that “anything we can do to improve safety provides tremendous benefits to Albertans.”

The legislation is also being lauded by Mayne Root, outgoing executive director of the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA). Root, who is also an ex-police officer, says “Just bringing it to the attention of people, and not just commercial drivers but everybody out there, will be a good thing.”

Ah, but is a new law required, or could the existing legislation merely be tightened or have its focus changed or expanded? Root thinks the new legislation is a good idea, saying the issue of distracted driving has been talked about for years, but there hasn’t been a lot of positive change over that time. “Making something very specific probably does have some merit in this case,” he says.

Root notes the new law makes it very specific to the public what the enforcement people will be looking for and what people should be aware of. And that, he thinks, means the new law has the potential to be beneficial in increasing traffic safety. On the other hand, he says, “I guess all we can do is wait and see.”

And though Root admits cell phone bans in other jurisdictions don’t seem to have helped solve the problem, the fact that Alberta’s legislation also covers driving sins such as applying make-up and eating means it could make it easier to prove an infraction than it was when only the broader statute was in effect.

“It used to be that police could pull a driver over and charge them with driving without due care and attention,” he says, “but there had to be proof that there was some sort of driving issue -that the person was actually driving in an unsafe manner.” Now, the driver only has to be seen glued to his or her phone -or newspaper or whatever -for police to have a case.

And where are all these enforcement officers going to come from? Will they be yanked from their gang fighting or murder solving duties to cruise the roads looking for farding females or dining dudes to fine? “I don’t think it will take any extra manpower,” Root says. “I think it just gives the police another way to look for things they need to deal with.”

The new legislation still permits the use of hands-free phones, which probably means Bluetooth device sales will jump in the province. And the law has no effect on the official duties of emergency service personnel including law enforcement, fire and medical services.

These and other exemptions lead Root to conclude that responsible truckers shouldn’t have anything to worry about. “The legislation talks specifically about the fact that emergency services vehicle drivers and commercial drivers are exempted,” he says. “They can still use their CBs for commercial or emergency use.”

Root has interpreted the legislation differently than Truck West, and feels professional truck drivers will still be able to use their CBs -for commercial use, that is. “The way I see the legislation worded is that as long as it was for commercial use they would still be exempted as well,” he says.

And while the legislation does appear to create a kind of “two tiered” system on Alberta roads, separating professional drivers from the great unwashed, the public does have one consolation besides shelling out for a Bluetooth gadget: they can use their hand-held devices to contact emergency services such as 911.

Other than that, however, they will soon face a $172 fine if police perceive them prattling when they should be steering instead. And like a photo radar ticket, the fine isn’t accompanied by an demerit points, which may lead some to wonder whether it’s really about safety or merely another cash grab on the part of government.

Distracted drivers could also face other charges if their phone-based peccadillo is accompanied by another violation -running a red light or making an improper lane change, for example. Such charges can bring a penalty of $402 and six demerit points, which could add up.

The legislation came into effect when it was proclaimed in November and will be accompanied by an awareness campaign coordinated with traffic safety stakeholders and law enforcement. The province anticipates a temporary grace period that could mean the hammer won’t fall on distracted drivers before mid-2011.

After that, of course, the roads will be perfectly safe.

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