The provincial government in British Columbia has introduced legislation to restrict the use of hand-held cellphones and other portable electronic devices while driving.

The law will come into effect on New Year’s day with a $167 fine being levied on motorists beginning a month later. If drivers are caught texting or emailing they will receive an additional three penalty points.

Effective January 1, 2010, the law requires that:
  • drivers not send or read text and/or email messages;
  • drivers not make or take phone calls, unless using a hands-free device with one-touch dialing; and
  • new and novice drivers (those in the Graduated Licensing Program) not send or receive any phone calls or text messages, regardless of being hands-held or hands-free.

Hands-free cellphones will need to be built in or securely fixed to the vehicle, and used by pressing a single button - once only - in order to activate a hands-free device for incoming or outgoing calls.

The news was welcomed by the British Columbia Automobile Association (BCAA) which welcomed the new rules as a positive step in addressing the growing problem of driver distractions.

"Young, inexperienced drivers are over-represented in traffic crash statistics, and therefore they need to be free from distractions such as mobile communications while they learn to drive and gain experience behind the wheel," explains BCAA's Director of Corporate Communications and Government Relations, Trace Acres.

Critics, however, say the ban does not go far enough. David Strayer, a University of Utah psychology professor, told CBC News, that hands-free devices are no less dangerous. Research shows that the brain doesn't process traffic information regardless of whether you drive with a hands-free or hand-held device.

Studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the U.S. as early as 2003 also found that hands-free headsets did not eliminate the serious accident risk posed by hand-held devices.