while driving

A partial ban on the use of cell phones while driving in Cayman recommended more than a year and a half ago as part of changes to the Islands’ Traffic Law has not materialised, despite support from local police and the National Roads Authority.

The Royal Cayman Islands Police Service and a Seventh-day Adventist Church group are targeting 2011 as the year when that will hopefully change.

But so far, it appears a redrawn Traffic Law will not include provisions that would ban the use of any hand-held devices for drivers.

“Cell phone use is one aspect we will be looking to address within our planned multi-agency road safety strategy,” says RCIPS Chief Inspector Angelique Howell, who has oversight responsibility for the RCIPS Traffic Unit. “While there is nothing currently within legislation that bans the use of cell phones whilst driving, it is clear that any activity undertaken by a driver that distracts him or her, results in a collision, or impairs driving ability could result in a charge of careless or dangerous driving.

“The RCIPS has recommended the banning of cell phones. This recommendation is contained within the new draft traffic law, which was submitted for consideration by Cayman Islands legislators in 2008.”

That initial recommendation in the Traffic Bill was proposed only for hand-held cell phones and would have allowed the use of hands-free speaker phones or Bluetooth devices in cars.

The Adventist Development and Relief Agency – an arm of the Seventh-day Adventist Church – began a public education and survey effort focused on the dangers of “cell phone” driving, including texting and Internet browsing, last year.

“We have also been in touch with members of the government advising them of our intent to launch this programme, as well as the future plans to have legislation tabled before the Legislative Assembly to enact such laws against cell phone driving in the Cayman Islands,” says Mitch Evans, the development and relief agency’s deputy director for special projects.

The Adventist Development and Relief Agency did some preliminary research in 2010 about efforts to ban texting and cell phone use while driving in the United States.

According to the agency’s research, 30 out of 50 US states have banned text messaging while driving for all drivers. Eight other states have partial bans on texting while driving.

“Partial bans apply to specific people such as school bus drivers or persons between the age of 18-20,” the group stated.

The agency identified eight US states that had already enacted laws to ban handheld cell phone use while driving and five other states had partial bans in place.

“No [US] states currently have laws enacted to ban headset or hand-free cell phone devices,” the church agency says. “However, partial laws are in place in 29 states, which prohibit [hands-free devices] for bus drivers, under age 18 drivers and novice drivers,” the agency stated.

Not all US states have enacted cell phone bans as ‘primary offences’. This means that in some US states drivers can only be cited for cell phone usage while driving if they are first pulled over for another offence such as speeding or reckless driving.

“The range of fines for those caught breaking the law in relation to cell phones [is] anywhere from US$50 to US$1,000 depending on the state,” the Adventist agency stated.

Rough patch

The call for banning cell phone use while driving was stirred up again after a particularly rough 2010 holiday period on Cayman Islands roads.

The Royal Cayman Islands Police Service reported 298 vehicle collisions on roads between 22 November, 2010 and 3 January, 2011 during a high-profile holiday traffic enforcement campaign.

The number has caused the RCIPS some consternation, given that it represents roughly double the number of car accidents that occurred on a weekly basis in Cayman during 2010.

“For a country the size of the Cayman Islands, 298 collisions in six weeks is a terrible figure and clearly demonstrates the lack of care and attention paid by many people on our roads,” Chief Inspector Howell says.

According to the latest traffic figures available, January through September 2010, the Cayman Islands averaged about 25 road accidents per week.

During the six weeks of the holiday traffic enforcement effort, Cayman averaged 50 collisions per week.

Prior to the holiday season, the number of accidents was actually trending down a bit, police records show.

“It’s clear that much more needs to be done by all agencies involved in road safety to address the issue,” Chief Inspector Howell says.

Cell phone use deadly?

Research in Cayman regarding accidents caused by distracted driving is sparse, but significant data exists in other countries, including the US.

The Seventh-day Adventist development agency quoted other research from the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society that blamed cell phone “distraction” for 2,600 deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries in the US each year.

“The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society have also identified that drivers talking on cell phones are 18 per cent slower to react to brake lights and that they also take 17 per cent longer to regain the speed they lost when they braked,” the agency noted.

The group also cited another study from the University of Utah that indicated driving while using a cell phone was as dangerous as drink driving.

“Earlier this year [referring to 2010], a truck driver killed 11 people in Kentucky and it appears from the investigation that he was operating a cell phone while operating his tractor-trailer,” the group’s research stated. “Published reports show that he was receiving and making cell phone calls in the moments leading up to the accident.”

In conclusion, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency stated: “Texting while operating a motor vehicle poses the highest risk for cell phone usage on a public road. Although using hand-held phone devices while driving are not banned by the majority of US states, it is still considered to be a huge distraction while driving.”

Left out of bill

Two top government officials confirmed last month that a proposed ban on using hand-held cell phones while driving was left out of the revised Traffic Bill that is due to come before the Legislative Assembly this summer.

Chief Officer of the Ministry of Works Kearney Gomez, the government entity that has chief responsibility for policy changes regarding traffic rules, says language making reference to a cell phone ban was not in the draft bill.

Ministry Assistant Chief Officer Tristan Hydes confirmed that the proposal for a cell phone ban had been left out of the draft bill. But Hydes also noted civil servants don’t get the last word on such matters.

“Although our bill is drafted and we’ve got all the final touches on it now… if it goes to the House and they want to put it in, they can do it,” he says.

Hydes says the government has not received such recommendations across all sectors of the Cayman Islands public.

“That’s why we haven’t put it in,” he says. “From some of the public we get ‘you can’t use a device at all’, then we get a certain sector of the public that says ‘well, you can use hands-free’, then we get another that says ‘you can use a hand-held device, you just can’t text on it’.

“Then we have those that say ‘forget about it altogether’. So we can’t just accommodate one group.”

Hydes says government will collect as much information as it could and present it to lawmakers prior to the bill going to the legislature.

Gomez pledged in March that the revised Traffic Bill would be presented to lawmakers by June.

Public reaction

More than 85 per cent of respondents to a recent poll taken on the online site said they supported – at the very least – a ban on hand-held talking and texting on cellular telephones.

Of the 600 total respondents to the poll, which is non-scientific and anonymous, the largest segment – 368 people or 61.3 per cent – supported a ban on hand-held talking and texting only.

Another 144 people – 24 per cent – supported a complete ban that doesn’t even allow hands-free talking.

“With the amount of people talking while driving, the Government will definitely profit by imposing a minimum fine of $500 if caught driving with a phone to your ear,” said one person taking the poll. “It’s simple to pull off the road if you must answer or make a call.”

“This ban needs to be implemented immediately because people talking without the hands-free device and texting will contribute to more traffic fatalities,” said another respondent. “Unless you are a medical doctor on call you really do not need access to a cell phone every minute of the day.”

A couple of respondents supported some sort of ban on cell phone use while driving, but questioned whether such a ban would be obeyed or enforced.

“Everyone around here seems to think that laws only apply to others,” said one person.

“I agree with a texting and hand-held ban, but how can you provide evidence of hands-free use?” asked another respondent. “Let’s be safe but practical. We have too many laws now that we can’t enforce.”

Some respondents didn’t think a ban on hand-held talking on a cell phone went far enough.

“Driving is driving and requires one’s full attention,” said one person.

“Hands free is not brain free,” commented someone else. “All attention on the road, please, none on your phone conversation.”

Sixty-five people – 10.8 per cent of the poll-takers – supported a ban only on texting while driving.

Only 21 people – 3.5 per cent – didn’t support any kind of a ban on cell phone use while driving.

“A ban really isn’t important at this time,” said one person. “The Cayman Islands are such small islands.

“This would be just another way for our police to waste time instead of going after the serious crimes,” said someone else.