Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What's the Penalty for "Distracted Lawmaking"?

November 17, 2010 the Calgary Herald runs a story about a 34 year old Albertan who attended at an Edmonton hospital emergency room at around midnight one Friday in September asking nurses for help because he was suicidal.

Approximately every hour for the next 12 hours the man came out of the room he was placed in to ask for a counsellor.

A full half day after seeking emergency treatment, his final request was for a pen and paper. Anyone paying attention might have guessed that it was to write his suicide note.

The young man then hung himself with the strap from his backpack attached to a lamp in the room where he spent his final moments...all alone.

The same story reports that the median wait time for an admitted patient to receive treatment at this hospital emergency room is 19 hours.

Against this backdrop, the exceedingly absurd Alberta government is falling all over itself to congratulate itself for the province's monumental new "Distracted Driving" legislation. Official propaganda repeatedly refers to this new law as "the most comprehensive legislation in Canada."

The Bill is 5 pages for the love of God...and that includes blank margins several inches wide on both sides of the text and page 5 that has one sentence "This Act comes into force on Proclamation." A decent copy-editor could fit it all on the back of a cereal box.

In spite of such unimpressive stature, the Calgary MLA apparently the father of this law is quoted as being "ecstatic" and "proud to have been a part of" the "almost three years" that it has taken for this massive majority government "to do this".

Since I am not behind the wheel of my car, I think I will text-speak my visceral response - WTF?

As a criminal defence lawyer I am, of course, well aware of the fact that it was already an offence under the Traffic Safety Act to drive "without due care and attention" or "without reasonable consideration for persons using the highway" - otherwise known as "careless driving". I am personally aware of instances where drivers were talking or texting on their cell-phones and were charged with this offence. I hardly think it was a rare scenario.

The old offence of "careless driving" is commonly understood to be the most serious provincial driving offence. It carries a specified penalty of $402.00 and 6 demerit points against your license. So, one could be forgiven for expecting even greater sanction from the new iconic "Distracted Driving" offence that our Transportation Minister described as a "bold approach" and prompted him to exclaim, "This is a great day for traffic safety in our province."

Alas, wading through all 5 of the new sections (about 1.67 sections per year by my math) of this earth-shattering legislative epic and the associated press releases, one will discover that the proposed penalty for this new quasi-crime is $172.00 and a total of zero license demerits.

I'm sorry...but that is considerably less than my monthly cell-phone bill and a fraction of what today's smart-phones cost to buy.

As the parking police and photo-radar fellas can attest to, well-to-do Albertans pay millions of dollars a year in fines for infractions they commit with staggering prolificity. Under the old offence, if caught texting or doing my nails or shaving or reading a book or whatever while driving and nailed 3 times for careless driving I get an automatic license suspension. Under the new offence, 3 distracted driving convictions and I pay a bit more than one careless...and I have no demerits. If I have enough cash, I can literally commit the offence every day, mail in a cheque and never change my driving habits.

A bold approach increased indirect taxation maybe...

So while I read with awe the giddy remarks of our elected officials blowing their own horns loudly enough to commit the traffic offence commonly known as "stunting" and I bathe myself in the warm pool of safety that has been bequeathed to me as a member of the driving public I cannot help but wonder:

If I am hit in a crosswalk by a "distracted driver" will he pay his fine and be back behind the wheel within the 19 hours I may wait to receive emergency medical treatment?

Are Alberta's MLA's so inept that they truly revel in devoting nearly 3 years of work to generate a few pages of redundant traffic laws?

Or is it that in the overzealous flourish surrounding this legislative milestone the government is looking to create a little distraction of its own?

The man swinging from the lamp might have had an opinion on that...if anyone had bothered to notice him. Might I suggest a "bold approach" on the Health portfolio before we get more new ways for traffic cops to meet their monthly quotas?

Just one Alberta taxpayer's opinion.

Michael Bates


Blogger Simon said...

All excellent points! May I add one other? As I drive (or in the summer, cycle) to my law office in downtown Edmonton I pass the time by counting blatant traffic violations committed by other drivers: most are for running crosswalks, driving in bike/bus lanes (a bugbear of mine) and illegal turns. I see on average 5 to 10 incidents per day. I have never seen a vehicle stopped by the police on my route to work for any of the above. Think the police are going to pull over cell phone gabbers? Not a chance. This will be just one more unenforced traffic law.

Great blog!
Simon Renouf, Edmonton

3:24 p.m.  
Anonymous Don MacCannell said...

On the bright side, when it's proclaimed, we can all enjoy being ticketable for checking a map at a red light...

9:46 p.m.  

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