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One bad turn: Eyes on the road isn't easy for young or old

Thane Burnett (QMI Agency)

By Thane Burnett, QMI Agency

Louise Petrella has never had a driver's licence -- but rarely, if ever, does she ask anyone to ferry her to appointments.

So the 78-year-old widow walks around New Westminster, in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, where she's spent a lifetime.

*** ***

In an industrial section of Montreal sit machines that can make you believe you're behind the wheel of a transport truck or in a small car taking a country drive.

Re-creations of the inside of a car and truck — complete with cup holders — are warmed up with the touch of keystrokes and a turn of an ignition key inside Virage Simulation, which specializes in testing how driver's react to any number of challenges.

On this day, I've come with my 20-year-old daughter, Genevieve, to find out, when it comes to texting while driving, would my more than three-decades of automobile experience trump her superior smartphone dexterity?

As Dr. Pierro Hirsch, director of Road Safety Research for Virage has an associate configure the computer consoles, my daughter and I trade bravado of which generation will win the challenge.

*** ***

It's about 2 pm., on January, 18, 2010.

Louise is outside her doctor's office, walking a familiar route home.

She is the archetype of an Italian family matriarch, who lives for family feasts and the smiles they bring.

It's been a few years since her husband, Carmine, died.

She walks alone across a well-marked crosswalk.

The van approaching doesn't slow down.

*** ***

Inside the simulator room at Virage, Genevieve and I take turns belted into the driver's seat of what could be an old Neon.

Hirsh's technician calibrates our normal driving responses, including how often our eyes turn from the roadway.

Rolling ahead on large screens is a digitized rural highway.

Hirsh has strong opinions when it comes to how we drive, arguing even scientists can't agree on what 'safe driving' really is.

He says, every day — ignoring smartphones — people drive distracted, and treat cars more like buses than complicated lethal tools.

But streets are — until the carnage — oddly forgiving environments. We hand rattles to babies in back seats, fiddle with our GPS and radios and we have become fixated just on what we do with our phones.

"It's like buying a ticket in a negative lottery," Hirsh explains of all the distractions that ride with us. "At some point that number can come up, with horrible results."

*** ***

The 56-year-old driver moving into the crosswalk is looking down, or away, but certainly not at the street — or Louise Petrella.

The van hits Louise with such force, she flies more than 40 meters.

She is not killed on impact.

Her last memory would have been a terrifying one.

*** ***

I'm all over the imaginary road — slipping just over the centre line — as I try texting while on the simulator.

My attention wanders. In some cases enough I cover the span of a football field with essentially my eyes closed, and my speed slows.

I'm finding it frustrating, but more because I'm not texting complete sentences.

I'm joking with Genevieve, who watches nearby.

The technician remains serious and focused, and Hirsh mentions something about no 'reset' button in the real world.

*** ***

Lousie's niece, Kari-Lyn Twidale waits in a courtroom to see the woman who took their guiding light.

A former traffic reporter, Kari-Lyn expects to see someone who looks like they could kill.

"Instead, this woman looks like she could have been my mom," she says.

There's a part of Kari-Lyn who wants to hug the woman.

The other part wants to scream.

The family is still unsure what the driver was looking at when the fatality — not accident — happened.

It doesn't matter. Nothing would have been important enough to take her eyes off the road.

*** ***

Genevieve hardly looks down at her phone as she sends off message after message.

Her final score is eight out of 10, in performing badly. My score is nine.

Ten is the worst.

Hirsh wants us to focus on the stream of scientific data showing how often our eyes left the road and the dangerous situation we both created in traffic. But we're fixated on our scores out of 10.

It's become a competition.

*** ***

Kari-Lyn sees the woman who killed her aunt inside a 7-Eleven. It's now some time after she has been convicted and fined $1,000 — a small sum, says the family, but then what would be enough?

"She looks like she's aged 10 years," Kari-Lyn says.

"It must have impacted her husband, kids and every time she looks in the mirror ... she faces it."

*** ***

Inside the simulator room at Virage, screens are switched off and results deleted.

My daughter and I have pulled out of the company's parking lot and are heading toward a real-world Montreal intersection.

We're chatting excitedly about who did worse in doing bad, and I'm reaching for a cup of now cold coffee.

When my phone rings.

As it waits within reach.

STILL TREATING DISTRACTED DRIVING AS ANNOYANCE, NOT A CRIME, SAY ADVOCATES

Karen Bowman thinks too many of us — and carmakers — don't get it.

The founder of B.C.-based advocacy group dropitanddrive.com sees weak legal penalties and still too many people who treat distracted driving as a personal choice, rather than something on par with drunk driving.

Drinking and driving makes you a social pariah.

Getting a texting ticket just makes people fume.

"The level of arrogance among drivers is still amazing," she says, pointing to one man who recently tried to argue it was his wallet that he was holding to his ear, rather than his cellphone.

Bowman says we use our cars as mobile living rooms, entertainment areas and kitchens, rather than what they are — heavy machines that should take all or our attention.

She also fumes at carmakers, which squeeze more distractions into vehicles — the latest is a plan to bring wi-fi to cars in Canada.

"The worst thing to happen to cars was the invention of the automatic transmission," laments Bowman, a Nanaimo mom whose child survived a collision in which someone ran into the back of a friend's car.

"You can't multi-task ... you toggle-task."

Ward Vanlaar, a VP of research for the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, an independent Canadian road safety institute, says while he can't speak on the potential impact of wi-fi-equipped cars — you can now do as much by creating a hotspot with your cellphone — it's clear drivers should be doing only one thing: driving.

Compared to entertainment options, safety equipment now being put into cars — from blind-spot sensors to electronic stability control — can help us, says the researcher. However, drivers may believe the options take responsibility off of their shoulders.

In a survey, the number of people saying they drink and drive was about 3%, says Vanlaar. But when those surveyed were asked whether they would consume alcohol and get behind the wheel, if the car had a number of electronic safety measures, the percentage of those willing went up to 7%.

"It doesn't matter what safety improvements your vehicle has," Vanlaar stresses. "The most important feature is your brain."


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