Published in the Montreal Gazette, January 11, 2012.

Late last month, near the city’s half – completed new bus terminal, I briefly witnessed a not too uncommon occurrence on the streets of Montreal. In the northbound, right-hand turning lane at the very busy and dangerous intersection of Ontario and Berri Streets, an automobile failed to advance at the moment the long – anticipated green light appeared. Seconds later, those waiting behind the seemingly – stalled vehicle began honking rowdily, yet the car still neglected to pull away. In fact, the cycle of the interchange’s light ran its full course with the driver never once putting his foot to the gas pedal. I suddenly realized that the delinquent motorist was totally distracted by texting on his smartphone – wholly oblivious to the traffic surrounding him.

Where, I thought, are the police?

Later that same day, I re-read Rene Bruemmer’s piece “Texting and driving a deadly mixture” (Gazette, December 21, 2011, A-3). After a quick deliberation, I wondered why the authorities were having such difficulty bringing the vexing and dodgy phenomenon under some semblance of   control. Perhaps the consequences were not sufficiently severe. The police may think that $115 and three demerit points make it not at all worth their while.

With my fervor for early twentieth century city history, I decided to check out how Edwardian Montrealers dealt with the issue of irresponsible automobile driving on the thoroughfares of the town in times gone by. I was quite surprised by what I learned. Granted, there were not that many motorized vehicles on city streets during the first decade of the last century but those that were around often ran afoul of the law. From careless speeding and creating dust clouds on the dirt roads of the municipality, automobilists were frequently the subject matter of negative newspaper reports and often the focus of angry pedestrians. Even drinking and driving was considered a very serious issue a century ago, and was dealt with accordingly.

When caught, fines were severe. A newspaper report on September 4, 1906, recounted how one Montreal motorist was fined $20 and costs, or one month in jail, for driving his vehicle at 30 KPH instead of the legal 10 KPH. One year later, two other individuals were fined the same sum for a similar infraction. They were also threatened with double the amount if they were brought before the courts again for the same offence.

For those who are curious, twenty dollars in 1906 money would be the equivalent of nearly $500 in today’s currency. One wonders how long drivers would continue to ignore today’s law with regard to texting while driving (or talking on a hand-held mobile phone) if they were threatened with a $500 sanction. Not too long, I suspect.

In other countries, one website (www.cellular-news.com/car_bans) reports that in Norway texting or talking on a hand-held device while driving is ticketed at the equivalent of $600 while in the Netherlands, the penalty for cellphone use while driving is 2000 Euros. ($2700), or two weeks in jail!  Bet you very few people are nattering away while driving in that country.

Clearly, the Quebec fine is not harsh enough. If it were, the phenomenon would dissipate quite quickly. In fact, the subject should have been dealt with immediately upon the swift emergence of the now popular cellular phone some twenty years or so ago.

All of us of a certain age can recall the bilingual notices on Montreal’s tramways and busses cautioning passengers not to speak with chauffeurs as “Safe Driving Requires Their Full Attention”. Today, even some city bus drivers can be seen talking on hand-held mobile phones while driving their sometimes – crowded vehicle. When brought to the attention of the STCUM, they promise ‘a full investigation’ but the consequences for the offending driver, if any, are considered a private matter. Not surprisingly, then, the ‘sightings’ continue unabated.

Make no mistake about it, this is not ‘a cash grab’ as many libertarians and other government-phobic people are commonly inclined to argue. It is a question of public safety – nothing else. And if it takes significantly higher fines and greater police vigilance to enforce the law effectively, so be it.

As the now defunct Montreal Star argued in an editorial about “the automobile nuisance” in October of 1908, “A petty fine is nothing to the wealthy owner of a powerful car; and it is not at all an adequate punishment for taking the risk of manslaughter”.

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