As part of its continued efforts to reduce road fatalities, the National Road Safety Unit is proposing modernizing the Road Traffic Act, to include restrictions on the use of cell phones and other gadgets by motorists while driving.
While there are no statistics speaking directly to the issue, Director of the Unit, Kenute Hare, argues that the cell phone is a distracting device which can contribute to traffic accidents.
He noted that the proposed amendments to the Act should be in place by August 2011. It is being recommended that motorists use a hands-free instrument, such as a blue tooth device, when talking on their mobile phones while driving.
“Texting while driving is a no, no. We’re not going to tolerate that. Right now, we want to control the use of cell phones. We are limiting it to hands-free, so it’s not that persons cannot use it, but we prefer that people get used to the earpiece for now,” he said.
He stated that motorists caught by the police using a hand held device while driving will be ticketed.
“This is a global push. It is a concern right across the world. Some countries have even banned it totally; if you are caught talking on your phones while driving, you are prosecuted,” he noted.
With Jamaica’s Road Traffic Act going as far back as 1938, Mr. Hare said it was important that the laws are in accordance with current road safety conditions globally, and brought in line with 21st century standards.
According to statistics from the unit, since the start of 2011, some 13 persons have been killed as a result of traffic accidents, seven of whom were pedestrians.
“We are not pleased with what has been happening since the start of the year. We have six persons dying needlessly. Motor vehicles went for these persons; these pedestrians were not trying to cross the road at all, the vehicles went for them,” he laments.
He is not sure what role the cell phones played in any of these accidents, but Mr. Hare is adamant that a restriction on its use by motorists would have a positive impact on road safety.
“I am certain that a lot of people can testify that the cell phone has caused a lot of problems for them in the traffic environment, and hence the push for us to ensure that our laws are in sync with the prevailing traffic conditions,” he said.
Over the years, it has been globally recognised that cell phones can be a distraction for motorists, with many countries enacting a ban on the use of hand-held cell phones.
A 1997 New England Journal of Medicine examination of hospital records showed that driving, while talking on a cell phone is extremely dangerous, and puts drivers at four-time greater risk of crashing.
A 2003 study from the Harvard Center of Risk Analysis also estimates cell phone use at the wheel contributes each year to six percent of crashes, resulting in 330,000 injuries, 12,000 of them serious and 2,600 of them fatal.
In the meantime, the Road Safety Unit will also be targeting the irresponsible use of other electronic gadgets used in motor vehicles that could potentially cause an accident.
“We have DVDs in motor vehicles and we’re going to limit the use of those too, because you don’t want people to be watching movies while they’re driving,” he says.
The Unit will be implementing a far reaching public education campaign to inform and prepare motorists for the new standards.
“We have the Road Scholar Programme coming on stream, and we have a section of it that will speak to distractions. It is geared towards ensuring that persons are aware of whatever is coming in the Road Traffic Act, so that when the time comes, they will be able to conform,” he remarks.
Most road users say they are willing to abide by the new rule when it is implemented, admitting that the use of cell phones, while driving, can be a real distraction.
Junior architect, Steven Harris, says the restriction will be welcomed as it is commonplace to see drivers talking and texting on their cell phones while driving.
“It's not just about talking on the cell phone, but with the popularity of the Blackberry most people are texting while driving,” he says.
“That is a serious distraction. Plus I’ve seen where people are traveling together and everybody is texting on their Blackberries, from the driver to the passengers in the vehicle and nobody is looking at the road,” he reveals.
Customer Service Teller, Garfield Green, believes there should be a limit on cell phone usage among motorists.
“It's a good idea, because you see it all the time. People talking on their phones, deep in conversation and hardly paying attention to the road in front of them,” he says.
“However, I think using a hands-free device can still pose a distraction. I think the correct thing to do is to ask people to pull over to take their calls,” he adds.
By: Athaliah Reynolds