Some distracted drivers given a choice: $543 fine or workshop

Some drivers caught using a cellphone behind the wheel were given the chance to waive the $543 ticket if they participated in a restorative justice session, a pilot project aimed at changing driver behaviour.

The Victoria Police Department and Restorative Justice Victoria say it’s the first time in B.C. that people caught using a cellphone while driving had that option instead of a ticket.

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Allan Poole, a 63-year-old real estate agent, was stopped at a red light at the intersection of Hillside Avenue and Douglas Street when his phone dinged. He flipped the phone over to see who had texted him and immediately heard a tap at his window from a police officer looking for distracted drivers.

Over two days in December, Victoria police gave out 42 tickets for using an electronic device while driving. The drivers were given a choice: Pay the fine or participate in a three-hour educational workshop organized by Victoria police and Restorative Justice Victoria.

Poole and 32 other drivers opted for the workshop on Dec. 10.

“I think it’s good policing,” Poole said. Instead of just handing out fines, he said, there’s a focus on educating people about the dangers of distracted driving. “The course, for me, elevated my awareness of the number of distractions that are going on every day.”

Participants, ranging in age from 20s to 60s, were asked to complete cognitive tests that demonstrated how difficult simple tasks become when you’re distracted. They heard personal stories, including those of a retired firefighter who talked about having to pry people out of vehicles in crashes caused by distracted driving.

The session focused on more than just cellphone use, said Karen Bowman, who ran parts of the workshop.

Drivers applying makeup, eating, turning around to check on kids or fussing with a dog on the lap are all distracted and at higher risk of crashing, she said. “If we can make it personally relevant, then we’re going to achieve behaviour change. … We can’t rely on law enforcement to be the only solution to this issue.”

The drivers were told that they also need to watch for distracted pedestrians, as many people walk with their heads down, focused on their phones. Poole recalls being at a stop sign when a pedestrian engrossed in his phone walked right into his car and rolled off the hood.

Frustrated at continuing to see drivers using cellphones behind the wheel, Victoria police Const. Sean Millard came up with the idea for the restorative justice approach, which was supported by ICBC, RoadSafety B.C., and the Traffic Injury Research Foundation.

Restorative justice helps people understand how their actions affect others to create long-lasting change, said Gillian Lindquist, executive director of Restorative Justice Victoria.

Lindquist could see that the personal stories “really hit home for people.”

“It takes it from ‘OK, I’m distracted’ to ‘Oh my God, I could significantly change or take away someone’s life,’ ” she said.

While the workshop was a pilot project, Bowman, Lindquist and the Victoria Police Department would like to do it again and hope the idea spreads across Canada.

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