Time to Throw the Book at Distracted Drivers

By Jason Menard,

When it comes to assault with a deadly weapon, should we add paperbacks to the list?

I’m not talking about getting a serious infection thanks to a particularly nasty paper cut. Nor am I talking about the danger of walking into a really sturdy street sign whilst reading a particularly engaging novel (not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything…)

No, I’m talking about being behind the wheel of a 2,300-kilogram vehicle hurtling down the highway at speeds exceeding 100 km/h, all the while deeply engaged in the latest bestseller. Would that qualify?

I think it would – and it should. And it’s time that we crack down on people who think that paying attention to the road is optional.

Thursday morning, around 2:40 a.m., a 24-year-old man allegedly was driving down the 401 with his interior light on. His vehicle was straddling the centre line and police reports allege that the man was reading.

I guess, on one hand, it’s refreshing that this guy was actually reading a book. Kudos for that. However, there’s a time and a place for everything — and being behind the wheel is certainly neither the time, nor the place for this.

We frequently hear reports of distracted driving, but usually they involve drivers texting while behind the wheel, or engaging in cell phone conversations. And even though there’s a hue and a cry from the masses whenever we hear about egregious actions such as the alleged aforementioned infraction, little seems to be done.

Yes, the province of Ontario has increased fines and penalties for distracted driving, but for some the message doesn’t appear to be getting through. So what’s the solution?

Attempted murder.

That’s right. In the wrong hands, a vehicle is a weapon. Accidents happen – we know that. But there’s a difference between an accident that occurs when the driver is focused on the task at hand and driving responsibly and one that’s caused by someone who willingly decides to turn the page on common sense.

This isn’t negligence – this is a callous disregard for human life.

I’ve been in a couple of accidents in my life – neither caused by me – and I can assure you that they can be devastating. When I was in grade six or seven, the school transport I was on was hit by a woman who ran a red light. She was in the midst of applying her makeup in the car when she hit us – a station wagon filled with pre-teens heading to school. Eight years ago, another woman decided the few seconds of time she’d gain by running a red light was worth inflicting a lifetime of pain on me and my wife.

But we were lucky. We lived and can enjoy at least a semblance of a normal life. It could have been much worse – and for many people, it is.

What text is worth paralyzing an innocent victim? What phone call needs to be taken at the expense of another person’s happiness and independence? And, in this case, what book is so engrossing that the price of that page-turner could be someone’s life?

We were all lucky that this story is nothing more than a head-shaking curiosity. It could have been much worse. Distracted driving is no better than driving drunk, yet we demand harsh penalties for those who cause accidents when their judgment is impaired by alcohol; so why are we so willing to forgive people who choose to text, read, or talk on the phone while driving?

In fact, you could make an argument that driving drunk is less egregious of a crime. After all, alcohol impairs your ability to make sound decisions. What’s your excuse when you’re stone cold sober and you make a conscious choice to endanger your fellow drivers?

Like a knife or a hammer, in responsible hands a vehicle is a useful tool. However, like a knife or a hammer, when wielded irresponsibly, with malice, or with negligence, a car can be a weapon. And if you make the choice to wield it in such a manner, then you have chosen to live – and hopefully not die – with the repercussions.

A fine, a few demerit points, and a slap on the wrist aren’t discouraging people from putting down the cell phones – or the books. Maybe it’s time to get serious about prevention and put in place punishments that more truly fit the crime.

If you choose to launch a 2,300-kilogram missile down the road and not be bothered with guiding it with your full attention, then you’ve essentially fired a bullet into a crowd of people. Luckily, this time, no one got hit, but why should we wait for a tragedy? If you hold other people’s life in such little regard that you’re value your ability to finish the next paragraph over their ability to keep breathing, then why should we, as a community, hold your life in any greater regard.

Attempted murder, attempted manslaughter, assault with a deadly weapon? Drastic? Yes. Draconian? Maybe. But somehow or another it’s time to throw the book at these people.

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