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

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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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Kids Help Phone launches texting service for youth nationwide, in both English and French

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For kids in crisis, help is a text message away.

That’s because Kids Help Phone recently launched a national texting service making mental health support more accessible.

Cara Chen, manager of community crisis responders at Kids Help Phone, is the first “texting supervisor” on the recently launched crisis text line, which is available at all hours in both English and French.
Cara Chen, manager of community crisis responders at Kids Help Phone, is the first “texting supervisor” on the recently launched crisis text line, which is available at all hours in both English and French.  (MOE DOIRON / TORONTO STAR)

“We needed to ensure young people could reach out for support in the way they prefer and using the technology they carry around with them everywhere,” said Alisa Simon, chief youth officer at Kids Help Phone, a charity that provides free anonymous and confidential services round-the-clock.

“We want every young person in Canada to quickly and easily be able to reach out for support and help.”

Kids Help Phone provides professional counselling services, anonymously, by phone and through an online chat. In November, it launched the confidential texting service, using volunteer crisis responders who engage in empathetic listening. Every texting conversation is monitored, in real-time, by a professional supervisor who supports the volunteer and can step in to help if necessary.

“By using volunteers we’re helping to change communities,” she said, adding more than 700 volunteers nationwide have been trained on the challenges young people face, how to have difficult conversations with them and how to assess whether they’re safe.

Between February and October, the service was tested in Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nunavut, the Atlantic provinces and at the University of Guelph. There were more than 13,000 texting conversations during that period, with the most common issues related to anxiety, depression, relationships and feelings of isolation.

Feedback on the new service has been positive. Texters, who are typically in their late teens or young adults, were surveyed about their experience. Eighty-eight per cent found the conversation helpful, 86 per cent reported a reduction in stress and 52 per cent felt more confident that they could cope with whatever was bothering them. About a quarter of respondents had suicidal thoughts. At times it was necessary for a professional supervisor to call emergency services, resulting in one to two active rescues daily. Supervisors are the only ones who can see the texter’s number and will call for help while the volunteer continues the conversation with the texter.

Most respondents said if they hadn’t engaged in a texting session they would have managed the issue on their own, ignored it or not spoken to anyone. Seven per cent said they would have gone to the emergency room.

The service was rolled out nationwide in early November and since then there have been, at least, an additional 15,000 texting conversations. Cara Chen, the manager of community crisis responders at Kids Help Phone, says youth from every province and territory are participating.

“It’s a groundbreaking service,” says Chen, who oversees the volunteer crisis responders. “It’s the first texting service for youth that’s 24-7 and offers services in English and French.”

She notes youth can reach out for help, even in the middle of the night, when other supports may not be available to them in their communities.

Shana Kapustin of Toronto decided to volunteer as a crisis responder, in large part, because she wants to ensure that her 15-year-old son always has “a safe place” he can turn to if he doesn’t feel comfortable speaking with her.

“You’re changing the lives of children, there’s nothing that is more meaningful than that,” says Kapustin, whose day job is as a senior director of human resources at Synnex Canada, which is a corporate national partner of Kids Help Phone. “The demographic lends itself to texting. They live on their phones. They live on texting, rather than talking.”

“I’ve found that most texters are very open, very willing to have a text with someone, because they’re really in crisis and they just don’t have any other options at that point.”

She started volunteering eight months ago, and says she’s had one conversation that required an active rescue. Authorities arrived in time.

“At the end of the day, we saved a life. There is nothing more rewarding than that.”

To reach a crisis responder who speaks English text TALK to 686868, and to connect with a French speaker text TEXTO to 686868.

Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74

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