Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on Monday, February 17, 2020.

A while back I read a book that was as poignant as it was scary. It is called A deadly wandering: A tale of tragedy and redemption in the age of attention, by Matt Richtel (William Morrow, 2014). I mentioned it at the time because of the high volume of drivers busted driving and texting at the time. I am picking up the topic again because somehow the issue of distracted driving does not seem to go away. How could it? The people at the other end are doing their best to keep our attention hooked to the devices through whatever pings and screen traps necessary.

And yet, as easy as it is to put the blame on that, we ought to remind ourselves that we are responsible to put the phone out of sight (and mind) while driving. Many don’t. A driver on Vancouver Island was spotted by police with her phone on her lap. The driver argued that the phone was just charging and she was not using it, but she got a ticket anyway, which she contested. Eventually a provincial court decided that the driver did not violate the law. Plugging a phone in does not equate to function as we know it, the judge said, so driver was acquitted and we are left to guess the nuances of the law. Plus, the phone in the car. Is it OK as long as you just ________ (fill in the blank) but don’t actually use it?

Another driver who was spotted with his phone mounted in the car by the police, and ticketed, was also acquitted of charges because there was no evidence of him using the device. The murkiness coefficient just increased, though the judge in question agreed that a device in plain view may distract the driver and it is safest is tuck it away. Still, it is not against the law to have it in plain sight. Should the law change?

Cue in devil’s advocate: but what if the two drivers (and countless others,) are just having their phones there, and would never ever throw a peek at the screen or, God forbid, get distracted and itchy to see and maybe even respond, if a text notification comes in while they are driving.

I saw the opposite enough times to doubt this hypothesis, including a motorcycle driver texting while cruising along the highway. Like I said above, cell phone apps prey on attention. They devour it too. Use with caution? Or at all?

The simplest strategy is the safest: toss your phone in a backpack, bag or purse, zip and put it out of reach. There. Eyes on the road and let’s make sure everyone makes it home safe.

December 20, 2017 marks the day when Leila Bui did not. The 11-year-old Saanich girl was waiting to cross, and she made sure to look both ways before crossing. A car that was going 100 kilometers per hour (limit was 50) and with the driver texting while driving, hit Leila so hard that she was thrown in the air, and eventually became wedged under another vehicle after sliding for 25 meters. Leila suffered severe brain damage, a broken neck and lacerated spleen. She was kept in an induced coma for several weeks and has since remained in an unresponsive state.

The judge found the driver, Tenessa Nikirk, guilty of dangerous driving causing bodily harm, and a sentence was supposed to be given on February 4. The parents have yet to receive an apology from Nikirk, who addressed them on the day of the accident and said that Leila ran in front of the car. And no, I will not tell you about the infuriating musings of her defence lawyer about the lucky and unlucky dangerous drivers (i.e. caught versus not caught.) You can read some here if you are curious.

Bottom line: what happened to Leila could happen to anyone’s child and it could happen to any of us. Lack of attention can be deadly, or just as close. Getting behind the wheel comes with a huge responsibility.

That we can somehow still not have strong laws in place that would deter drivers from not driving to their full attention capacity is baffling. Or harsher sentences, for further deterring. People’s lives are changed in horrible and unimaginable ways when drivers get behind the wheel and drive while handling their phones.

Determining fault involving cell phones while driving (whether held in one’s lap, or mounted or just in plain view,) is not a black and white issue as of yet. But it could and should become one if that means that people’s lives are spared. Meanwhile, please put your phone away when driving. Anything can wait and if not, pull to the side of the road where it’s safe and check your messages. In doing so, you are protecting people’s lives and your own too.