Dialing While Driving: Do cell bans include push-to-talk functions?

MONTREAL — For most drivers, the truck cab is like a second home. In fact, in many cases, there’s nothing secondary about it.

These days, though, there’s less truckers can do inside their homes: Smoking while behind the wheel is banned in Ontario and Alberta. And now talking while driving — on a cellphone, anyway — is out of bounds in Quebec and Nova Scotia.

Both provinces followed the lead of Newfoundland (which banned hand-held devices while driving in 2003). After a "soft enforcement" period ends June 30, using a cell will cost you about 100 bucks and three demerit points in La Belle Province and up to $165 for a first offence in Nova Scotia.

At first glance, the regulation in Quebec seems pretty simple. But things might not be all that clear as questions are surfacing as to whether the ban includes CB-like cellular functions like Telus’ "Mike" and "10-4" from Bell Mobility.

That’s exactly what members of the Comité Technique de Camionnage du Quebec (an association for fleet maintenance managers and mechanics) wanted to know at a recent seminar hosted by the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ).

"What about phones like Mike and 10-4 that many carriers use?" several in the audience asked out loud. The answer? Cue the sound of crickets here.

Such cell phones work sort of like CBs or walkie-talkies via a "push-to-talk" function. To use it, well, drivers have to do just that — likely putting them, as Today’s Trucking has learned, in violation of the new rule. Also, there doesn’t appear to be any hands-free voice recognition option for this kind of technology.

According to information we obtained from the SAAQ, the regulation doesn’t seem to apply to devices that are fixed to the vehicle, which makes traditional CBs okay.

When we interviewed him, Marc Choma, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Wireless Telecommunications, said the situation is interesting, but he admitted he really doesn’t know how to address Quebec truckers’ concerns about the absence of a push-to-talk function in a hand-free mode.

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"It is possible to use a headset when listening, but you must push a button to talk. To my knowledge, there is no device on the market allowing the use of the walkie-talkie mode hands-free," said Choma.

Fleets, their drivers, and owner-operators commonly use these push-to-talk functions because it can drastically cut down their communication costs and the range is pretty good (we’re told they provide crystal clear sound between Quebec City and Toronto, for example). You can get a push-to-talk package, with unlimited time, for about $30 per month.


So, can drivers in Quebec still use them? Right now, we’re in a grey zone at best. And, as many truckers know from roadside inspections, whenever there’s ambiguity in the law, their fate can rest with the interpretation of individual inspectors — who may or may not be having a good day.

"We know that such devices exist but, for the moment, we don’t have all the answers," Gaétan Bergeron, chief of engineering service at the SAAQ, told members of the CTCQ.

Peter Nelson, executive director of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association, says he’s fielded calls from members expressing concern with the Quebec rule, but he hasn’t yet heard that there might be similar issues in Nova Scotia.

Still, because the rules are so similar, he says he wouldn’t be surprised if eventually overzealousness leads to a driver in Nova Scotia getting ticketed too. "When it’s that arbitrary, it can sometimes fall onto roadside to figure it out," he says.

If reaction from safety groups is any indication, there just may come a time when all communication devices are outlawed in moving vehicles. Raynald Marchand of the Canada Safety Council says cellphone bans alone are useless and divert attention from the real issue. "The problem is the degree of the distraction, whether it’s hand-held or hands-free. Hands-free is not distraction-free," he told local media at the time the rule came into force.

So, truckers, don’t be surprised if you have to pull over and sneak under a bridge for a smoke as well as a chat some day.

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