Ontario drivers must master hands-free use of mobile devices

A bill proposing to ban use of handheld devices in cars could still allow drivers to view their gadgets so long as they are mounted to the dash, according to those familiar with the proposed legislation.

Bill 40 was introduced to the Ontario legislature on Wednesday and seeks to change the Highway Traffic Act to prevent drivers from using handheld devices.

 Drivers caught talking into a phone held to their ear, or with thumbs typing away on a Blackberry, or eyes focused on an iPod screen could pay fines of up to $500, according to the Ontario government.

But hands-free use is OK.

That leaves the door open for device manufacturers and service providers to come up with creative ways that enable drivers to continue to use technology.

The legislation is designed to allow hands-free use of mobile devices to continue, according to Progressive Conservative transportation critic John O’Toole (Durham).

“There’s new technology that’s voice activated and hands free, and that’s the future,” he says. “We’re becoming a much more mobile economy. A lot of car manufacturers already have Bluetooth interactivity built-in.”

Bluetooth allows mobile devices, such as cell phones, to communicate with other devices and accessories. Bluetooth headsets are fairly commonplace, and would still be allowed under the proposed legislation.

On the same day the new bill was read for the first time, Calgary-based Telus Corp. announced a new voice-activated service for wireless business subscribers. At a fee of $6 a month, Telus Voice Control promises to do everything with your voice that you can no longer do with your hands while driving.

That includes surfing the Web, dialing, getting GPS directions, and dictating e-mail or SMS messages.

“What’s great about voice control is you could use it with your headset,” says Kara Kennedy, manager of product marketing with Telus. “We’re enabling our clients to work smarter in the environment they’re in. So this will help with the problem.”

The service uses a resource that improves accuracy of dictated messages – human beings!

While you are dictating your e-mail, a staffer from Nuance Communications Inc. is listening to the message and transcribing it for you. The Burlington, Mass.-based company is providing the voice service for Telus.

In the past, the discourse around the use of cell phones in cars has focused on physical vs. mental distraction.

Some bodies, such as the Ontario Medical Association, advocate a complete ban on any cell phone use in vehicles – saying it is distracting, regardless of whether both hands are on the wheel or not.

Quebec, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia have enacted similar hands-free laws already.

But a complete ban shouldn’t be left off the table, suggests Kris Barnier, provincial affairs specialist with the Canadian Automobile Association.

“Studies show when you’re talking on a cell phone, you’re not scanning the road as much,” he says. “The best advice is to just not talk on a cell phone at all.”

The CAA is not advocating a complete cell phone ban for all drivers in Ontario at this point. But the association would like to see a pilot project banning cell phone use for new drivers under the province’s graduated licensing system, Barnier says.

Then studies could be done to evaluate how effective it is and whether the law could stand up in court.

Enforcement of a new law would be relaxed while drivers are educated about the issue, transportation critic O’Toole suggests. No demerit points will be given when penalties are handed out.

“You can bring down the hammer later,” he says. “On first violation, you should probably have to take a driver simulation course.”

Police will be able to pull over drivers they see violating the law, Barnier says. But only serious offenders will be fined at first.

“It will probably be the people who are doing two or three stupid things at the same time – talking on a cell phone, weaving in and out of traffic, and not stopping at a red light.”

Drivers who want to avoid trouble with the law – should the ban come into effect – can invest in a low-tech solution. A mount that attaches to your windshield or dashboard and holds a mobile device will put you in the clear.

“If you’re using the GPS on your Blackberry and you mount your Blackberry on your dash, so you’re not fiddling with it, that will be okay,” Barnier says. Same goes for mp3 players and cell phones.

Making use of those voice-activated functions on your Blackberry is also a good idea, O’Toole says. “Why do we have a keyboard? That’s pre-historic – like having a rotary dial on a phone.”

Blackberrys have a range of options with voice functionality. Many models allow dialing or checking a calendar with voice requests. The Yahoo! oneSearch application can be installed free of charge and allows users to conduct Web searches with voice.

Users of the new Telus service can get GPS directions by asking for them too.

“If you wanted to know driving directions, you could ask for them when you’re stopped, and then look at them when you’re ready to pull over,” Kennedy says. “The manual way requires you to type it all in.”

But drivers who get into accidents by being distracted by even hands-free devices could face stiff penalties under the new legislation. Drivers who place others at risk as a result of using hands-free devices can face fines up to $1,000, receive six demerit points, and face a license suspension and jail time.

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