Ontario’s handheld device ban for drivers expected to boost Bluetooth sales

Cell phone manufacturers expect to cash in on Bluetooth device sales as Ontarians scramble to comply with a new law banning the use of handheld gadgets while driving.

Bill 118 was given its third reading and passed unanimously in the Ontario legislature on Wednesday, and now only needs Royal Assent to become the letter of the law. The bill, expected to come into force this Fall, bans use of electronic devices for drivers including cell phones and mp3 players.

Police will enforce the new legislation and penalties will include fines ranging from $60 to $500, according to Emna Dhahak, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Transportation. Demerit points might also be doled out to drivers caught red handed.

But drivers can avoid those fines by using a hands-free device to talk on their phones, such a head set or a car speaker phone.  

“While some research indicates that use of any communications device by a driver, whether handheld or not, increases the risk of crashes, there is substantial evidence indicating hand-held devices are more of a problem because drivers are trying to operate a vehicle with one hand,” Dhahak says.

As a result, cell phone makers are expecting Bluetooth devices to fly off the shelves. Bluetooth is a technology that allows devices to communicate wirelessly. For example, a head set could be used for voice dialling, and then conducting conversations on a cell phone.

Both Nokia Canada and Motorola Canada report a major spike in sales of Bluetooth devices when a similar hand-held device ban was passed in Quebec last year.

“The Quebec numbers were approximately four or five times the number of sales we’d seen in the previous quarter,” says Richard Lee, country sales manager for original accessories, Nokia Canada.

Sales rose during Quebec’s probationary period from April until June. The province spent that time warning drivers, before starting to hand out tickets.

“When the law passed in Quebec we saw sales double in a short period of time,” says Ralf Seilis, channel manager of companion products for Motorola Canada. It’s the driver’s responsibility to use tools available in the market to prevent distraction, he said.

Many other provinces and U.S. states have passed similar bans on handheld device over the past couple of years.

Drivers should be aware that using hands-free devices might help them avoid being pulled over, but it’s not completely safe or without legal repercussions in the case of an accident. If a driver using any kind of electronic device causes an accident that harms others, they could face stiff penalties under the Criminal Code of Canada. That includes up to five years in jail, a $1,000 fine, or a revoked licence.

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) recommends entirely prohibiting use of cell phones while driving, even the hands-free variety. In a report published last October, the Association warned hands-free conversations are just as distracting to drivers because it impairs cognitive function and visual concentration.

The government should have gone one step further with the legislation, says Ken Arnold, president of the OMA.

“We want any distraction taken away,” he says. “We know Bluetooth is hands-free, but people go off into a different world and focus more on speech than their driving.”

The OMA encourages drivers to turn off electronics while driving, he adds. The association also wants the government to pursue a public education campaign that informs drivers of the dangers of chatting on a cell phone while behind the wheel.

“We’ve seen this in our emergency rooms – people have been injured as a result and we see the nasty end of that,” Arnold says. “It’s always a dramatic and heart-wrenching situation when young people are injured or killed in a car accident.”

The OMA commended the Ontario government for the new law, and Arnold says he’s glad there will be at least one less distraction.

Progressive Conservative transportation critic John O’Toole (Durham) has brought other bills before parliament dealing with driver distraction in the past. Bill 118 addresses most of his concerns and strikes a balance between safety and people’s expectations for technology, he says.

“We’re in the midst of a technological tidal wave, we’ve moved from a cell phone that’s the size of a shoebox to a cell phone that doesn’t have any keypad,” he says. “In a few years, this technology will be fully integrated into cars and trucks. That’s the future.”

But O’Toole criticizes the bill’s inclusion of specific devices that are banned.

Allowing specific devices to be banned via regulations would make more sense than carving them into the letter of the law, he says. The MPP also wants the law to be ushered in with a grace period of six months.

“They shouldn’t start by giving a person a ticket,” he says. “They should start by educating the driver.” One option, he said, is making drivers take a mandatory course that also teaches multi-tasking skills.

The law does cover a wide range of handheld devices, including entertainment and communication devices, according to the ministry. Display screens visible to the driver and not used to assist driving are also banned – so you can’t watch a DVD movie or work on your laptop, but you can mount a GPS device to your dash.

There are exemptions of the law for drivers who need to dial 911. Drivers may also pull over and safely park to make a call. Emergency service workers are considered to be exempt from the law when on duty.

Both Nokia and Motorola have a wide range of Bluetooth headsets available for drivers. Prices range from about $30 in the low end to $130 for a premium quality head set. Something in the middle of the road should do for most drivers, says Motorola’s Seilis.

“The main microphone on a headset will take in a user’s voice and environmental noise around them. The second microphone is pointed away from the headset and takes into account all the environmental noise, then digitally removes it,” he says.

Drivers who wish to continue to use older cell phones without Bluetooth connectivity can do so with a simple wired headset, points out Nokia’s Lee.

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