DISTRACTED DRIVING: Breaking a dangerous habit across B.C.

Provincial campaign aims to change the way we look at distracted driving forever

Surrey RCMP Sgt Gary Clarke says he would like to see penalties increased for distracted driving.

Surrey RCMP Sgt Gary Clarke says he would like to see penalties increased for distracted driving.

SURREY — A man in nondescript clothing stands at a bus stop bench just north of Fraser Highway on 152nd Street. It is a typically busy afternoon rush hour, and chances are no one even notices him.

But if you look closely, you’d see that every now and then he puts a hand to his lapel. Under his winter jacket is a shoulder mic, and it is getting a workout.

The man is Cpl. Jose Oliveira of the Surrey RCMP. And it is his job, on this provincial distracted driving blitz day, to spot offenders as they drive past his bus stop.

Oliveira was just one person in a heavily-concentrated, two-hour effort unfolding at one of Surrey’s busiest intersections on March 17.

A block ahead of Oliveira were Surrey RCMP volunteers Tina and Merrill Turpin (pictured)

The husband and wife team, both Surrey residents, have spent a few days each week for the past seven years volunteering for the RCMP. On this day, they were the front line of the operation – a highly visible human deterrent decked out in fluorescent vests and each propping up large “no mobile device” signboards.

Merrill told me later that while most drivers would put down their phone – and hopefully think about putting it down permanently – when they see the message he and his wife deliver, the chronic offenders would, within seconds, pick it right back up again. And that’s where the ultra-discreet Oliveira came into the picture.

Another block down from the bus stop was the hub were seven officers in the parking lot of Surrey Fire Hall 6. They had a Nikon spotting scope sitting on a tripod behind an unmarked SUV, but were more reliant this afternoon on the radioed info from Oliveira. He’d tell them which vehicle and which lane, and one of the seven would flag it over and write the ticket.

“Unfortunately,” said Oliveira (pictured), “the penalty is just $167 and three points. It’s the same with repeated offences. There’s no legislation yet to escalate the punishment. We can ask the judge at the time of the trial to raise the fine to the maximum, which is $2,000, but I haven’t seen too many that are willing to go up that high.

“Most of us (officers) would like to see a scale where, well this your fourth one, it’s time to bump it up to $400 or whatever.”

Oliveira (pictured) talked about the seemingly obsessive attachment to mobile devices.

“They’re too attached to their phones, and they can’t seem to go without hearing that ding and doing something about it.”

ICBC’s road safety co-ordinator for Surrey/White Rock and the lead for the provincial distracted driving campaign, Karen Klein, was on hand. She reeled off some stats.

One in four traffic deaths involve distracted driving. Drivers are five times more likely to be involved in an accident if they’re using a phone. Distracted driving is the second leading cause of fatal car crashes, ahead of drinking and driving.

Klein says the recent operation was just a small piece in an ongoing initiative to ultimately change people’s behaviours. She wants the general public to one day view the distracted driver as they now view the drunk driver – a perceptional change that itself took years to come to fruition.

SEE ALSO: When Karen Klein isn’t making Surrey’s roads safer, she’s helping at hospice

Across the street, six volunteer members of the Surrey Crime Prevention Society set up shop. They’re tackling northbound traffic and their purpose is twofold. First, they’re a visual reminder to passing motorists. But they also provide counts – how many are texting, how many are phoning, and more.

It was then that the lead officer, Sgt Gary Clarke, sidled over.

Like many of his peers, Clarke (pictured), has seen the grisly after effects of distracted driving once too often.

“I’ve attended fatal collisions where we know the individual was on the phone because the phone was open in dial mode when we arrived.”

He agrees with Oliveira that punishment should be heightened, but has a slightly different take.

“I’d like to see the fines increased, but I don’t have the power to make that decision. The problem you have when you boost the fines though…the people who can afford it will continue to do the problem. (But) when you start taking away licenses, then it becomes difficult for everyone.”