Gordon Self

September 26, 2011

Alberta's new Distracted Driver Legislation came into effect Sept. 1. It is now illegal to use hand-held cell phones, text, manually input GPS data, read, write or engage in personal grooming while driving.

Alberta has one of the toughest laws in Canada, joining other provinces in clamping down on the growing trend of inattentive drivers behind the wheel.

The fact that we are a distracted society is no surprise. Advertising constantly bombards us with the latest mobile device performing ever more multi-task functions.

No longer is the ability to focus and live in the present moment a virtue; but rather, our technical savvy to connect to everything going on around us and in real time. Why should something as mundane as driving interfere with our compulsive need to stay plugged in?

Imagine the same scenario played out with the pilot of the plane or the surgeon in the operating room. What could be more important than landing the plane or removing the tumour? Of course, society still holds pilots and surgeons accountable to safely and competently fulfill their professional duties because lives are dependent on them doing so.

But how is this any different than the carnage on our roads if drivers abdicate their social responsibilities? Sadly, the prevalence of tailgating, speeding, running red lights, road rage and driving under the influence, all would seem to indicate we are not accountable, except perhaps when there is a chance of being caught and fined.

Distracted driving habits can carry over to other aspects of our lives as well.

Distracted driving habits can carry over to other aspects of our lives as well.

While this is a matter of public safety, it is also, fundamentally, a serious moral issue. Lives can be irrevocably changed, or lost, from a careless act of inattention, excessive speed or drunk driving. We have a moral responsibility to look out for one another and pay attention to the needs of our fellow travellers.


In 2007, the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People issued guidelines for the care of road users in a supplement entitled, People on the Move. The statement emphasized the moral responsibility of driving, noting that we must coexist in sharing the roadways - "the road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm" (61).

A quote from Pope Paul VI adds: "Too much blood is spilt every day in an absurd competition with speed and time" (41). Such absurdity, however, is no laughing matter when the consequences of our actions play out in emergency departments, ICUs or morgues.

The Vatican's call to solidarity and responsibility on the roads stands in stark contrast to the prevailing attitude among many motorists who view their cars as instruments of power and domination.

How easily we can lose sight of the human being in the car ahead when aggressively riding on their bumper, forgetting they too are commuting to make a living or driving to pick up their kids from daycare. Even more tragic is when we lose sight of our compassion and patience for others. Or, distracted by rage and impatience, we lose sight of our very selves.


Quite possibly our new provincial legislation represents more than a corrective for distracted driving. It also provides a social commentary of the need to pay attention, whether it be awareness of our fellow drivers, the needs of our neighbour or heeding the warning signs of our bodies.

If we are distracted on the roads we are probably distracted in other areas of our lives too.

For example, think how easily we can become distracted during times of conflict. Like aggressive driving, if our attitude is simply to beat an opponent at all costs, we risk missing out on the gift of their perspective. Ego and power can distract us from hearing their piece of wisdom. We can stubbornly anchor ourselves to our treasured opinions that do not always bear up under the weight of evidence.

This is especially important in the health care context when facing difficult ethical and emotionally laden cases. Unfair labels either about "doctors playing God" or "disruptive families who can't let go" tend to keep stakeholders embroiled in conflict and at risk of making a poor health care decision.

Like cell phones, we have to turn off the rhetoric and commit to listening to one another. Our undivided attention must remain focused on the person in the bed.

Perhaps our new provincial legislation promises to make us more attentive listeners and compassionate caregivers, as much as we hope to become better drivers.

(Gordon Self: