From their perch in a special van, police are watching for texting drivers


Toronto police are watching, from special elevated vans, streetcars, and their bikes, waiting for you to pick up your phone while driving.

That’s the message they want motorists to get during a week-long distracted-driving blitz aimed at getting people to put down their devices and focus on the road.

The Star went on a ride along Monday to get a first-hand look at the hunt for distracted drivers, hopping into a white 10-seater van that lets cops see into passing cars. Traffic Services is borrowing two from other areas of the police service, as well as an unmarked pick-up truck.

Drivers have gotten more savvy about flouting the law, says Sgt Brett Moore, as a fellow officer steers the van along Lakeshore Boulevard.

“Folks inherently know that distracted driving is wrong, and in order not to be so blatant to have (their phone) up to their ear they’re dropping it down to their lap,” he says.

“These lap-lookers, they’re not kidding anybody.”

The new zero-tolerance campaign follows the province’s stricter penalties for distracted driving, which came into effect Jan 1. It’s now a minimum $615 fine, three-day license suspension and three demerit points, upon conviction, for a first offence. The fines increase to a maximum of $2,000 and $3,000 for second and third convictions respectively.

Upon a third offence, novice drivers lose their licenses entirely and have to start at the bottom of the graduated licensing system.

On Wednesday, officers will be watching from streetcars, calling on radios to officers trailing them in police vehicles who can intercept people spotted using their phones. Cops in regular cars, on foot and on bikes will also be looking out.

The transit technique is borrowed from officers in Waterloo.

“I call it R And D: Rip off and duplicate. We’re not too proud to rip off good ideas and give full credit,” says Moore with a laugh.

Though distracted driving laws have been on the books for almost a decade, motorists keep doing it.

“We’re creatures of habit,” Moore says. “It’s not getting better.”

Provincial data on 2013 collisions show one person is injured in a distracted driving collision every half hour, and a driver using their phone is four times more likely to crash than a driver who’s not.

Sgt Alex Crews, also with Traffic Services, says he usually stops an offender “within 15 minutes,” after he starts looking for them. He caught a driver Monday in a Range Rover who was talking on a Bluetooth but also scrolling through texts on his phone at the same time.

It’s okay to talk on a hands-free device like a Bluetooth, and have a phone or GPS that’s securely mounted, as long as you’re not touching it, aside from to start or end a hands-free call.

The new harsher penalties apply just to devices, but there are other ways to be distracted, from applying makeup to eating, adds Crews.

“Let’s say you’re driving along and you have a sandwich and you take a bite, no issues. It’s when you’ve got the triple cheeseburger and you’re dripping mayo and ketchup and mustard into your lap and you’re wiping it down and oh my goodness, you rear-end somebody,” he says.

That would be considered careless driving.

At one point the van passes a man glancing down near St Lawrence Market. But officers need to see someone using their phone to make the charge, Moore says.

Toronto police investigated 10,000 instances of possible distracted driving in 2018 — a rate of about 27 a day.

Several tickets were issued Monday morning.

Almost all of those fined cried — something Moore has little patience for.

“It’s that instant remorse, too little too late,” he says.

“There should be no crying in distracted driving.”

Instead of tears after the fact, Moore wants to see people “make a change” now, by investing in a device to properly secure their phones.

“It’s just a matter of time,” he says. “The more times that you drive distracted, use your device, text, phone whatever … one day your number will come up and you’re going to cause a collision.”

May Warren is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11


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Frightened Brit texted Mom from North Shore cliff edge before being plucked from perch


When first-time B.C. tourist Michael John Buckingham headed up the Grouse Grind on Monday, he had an extra battery pack for his iPhone 8, two compasses — and he grabbed a stranger’s phone number on the way up — just in case.

That move may have saved his life.

Some 15 hours later — the rain-sodden Brit was plucked off a tiny ledge by rescuers using a longline on a helicopter.

But there was a lot of drama in the meantime.

« Basically I just thought I was going to die for 15 hours, » the rescued man would later tell reporters.

But there were no such thoughts that day as the 37-year-old East Londoner headed up the steep trail with a friend he’d met at a local hostel.

His companion would eventually turn back, but Buckingham, an avid hiker, pushed on — planning a circular route using the app on his phone.

North Shore Rescue posted this photo showing where Michael Buckingham, 37, spent the night on Crown Mountain. The caption said it’s ‘an extreme example of what can happen when you get off route’ and that Buckingham was ‘very very lucky to have not fallen.’ (North Shore Rescue/Instagram)

He planned to descend by dark, but the hike took longer than he expected, because he says the app didn’t take into account the steepness of the terrain.

When he hit a dizzying mountain ridge — he knew he was in trouble.

Buckingham says he panicked and turned down an overgrown trail and he was later told that he went over Beauty or West Crown Peak.

Somehow, he ended up stranded on a cliff near Crown Buttress Trail — just above Grouse Mountain.

He says that from where he sat he could not see how precarious his position was through the mist and jet-lag.

« I don’t know how I got there. I had no ropes or climbing equipment. My girlfriend said I must be half mountain goat, » he said.

« I had no idea it was a cliff. I couldn’t see it. I just thought if I go any further I’m gonna die and it’s impossible to go back. »

Rescuers said the fact that he stopped and called a stranger for help probably saved Buckingham’s life.

Michael Buckingham headed up the Grouse Grind on Monday morning with water, two compasses and a good map. He planned a hike with a friend, but ended up stranded near a vertical drop. (Michael Buckingham)

That woman alerted police — who dispatched North Shore Rescue.

Monday night, a helicopter failed to reach him because visibility was too poor.

Then, as ground crews reached him, an inventive rescuer tied two lengths of rope together to make a 100-metre rope that was just able to get to him with 50 centimetres to spare.

Buckingham was secured on the cliff ledge with a big spring-loaded metal clip or carabiner — which stayed in place until the helicopter arrived Tuesday morning.

North Shore rescuer Jason McEwan rappelled from the helicopter down to Buckingham, who was a long way from London, where he plays trombone in a band.

At one point, Michael Buckingham, 37, stripped off his sweat-soaked shirt and set it on a rock, hoping it would make it a little easier for rescuers to spot him. The stunning view from his perch of Burrard inlet, he says, was terrifying. (Michael Buckingham)

« He was a little cold. He’d made the right decision to stop and not go any further, » said McEwan who brought the stranded man a bag of supplies — heated underwear, a sleeping bag, a food bar, a small torch, gloves and a balaclava — then left him.

The ledge was too small for two men

That’s when Buckingham says he texted his Mom, who he says has terminal myeloma cancer.

« She said if she’d lost me, she wouldn’t be able to go on. »

He stayed there in the dark — playing 20 games of online chess to calm his nerves — until, with dawn breaking, the helicopter came and a longline was used to hoist the shaking man to safety.

Michael Buckingham, shortly after a helicopter crew rescued him from Crown Mountain. He spent more than 12 hours stranded in rainy, wet conditions. (Yvette Brend/CBC)

Buckingham was set down by the helicopter Tuesday morning, bewildered and chilled and was immediately surrounded by reporters who, he says, went live with his comments before he realized he was on camera.

« It was freezing, » said Buckingham.

He described how he reacted, when he saw rescuers coming.

« I was crying like a little girl. »

Now that he’s safe off the mountain, Buckingham says he plans to make a $1,500 donation to North Shore Rescue, as soon as he can get the bank to transfer the money.

« I can’t praise them enough. I think about bits and start [to] cry at how lucky I am. I don’t know how many people were up that mountain, but I’m thankful for every single one, » he said.

The lost hiker’s orange T-shirt was laid on a rock near the spot where he got stuck as a beacon for searchers. (Michael Buckingham)

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