Canadians appear to have a blind spot when it comes to distracted driving — they are convinced everyone else is guilty of using their smartphone while behind the wheel, but when they themselves do it, it doesn’t count.
It’s a deadly type of denial. Distracted driving fatalities have surpassed those caused by impaired driving in some parts of Canada, according to data from the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF). In Ontario alone so far this year, provincial police report that distracted driving has accounted for 44 fatalities while impaired driving has led to 34 deaths.
Drivers are in denial about distracted driving
“There seems to be a disconnect,” said Karen Bowman, communications director at TIRF. “Drivers don’t connect the behaviours they’re engaging in and the risks that are associated with those distractions behind the wheel.”
Drivers are quick to point the finger at others, though. In a recent survey commissioned by Desjardins Insurance, 93% of participants said they “rarely or never” drive distracted by a cellphone while 84% claimed they “often or always” see others driving distracted by their devices.
Meanwhile, Ontario government data shows that the number of fatal collisions due to distraction has doubled since 2000.
Bowman, whose daughter was seriously injured when she was eight years old in a crash caused by a distracted driver, said even a short glance at a smartphone can be catastrophic.”The difference between a close call and a collision is often measured in millimetres and microseconds,” Bowman said. “We’re talking about just those seemingly innocent moments: ‘I’ll just do this for a sec’ or ‘I’ll just look away for a moment.'”
She pointed out that at 100 km/hour, a vehicle will travel almost the full length of a hockey rink in just two seconds.
Several provinces have increased fines and penalties. Since becoming law in June 2018, drivers caught driving while distracted, increasing the risk of an accident or bodily harm to others on the road, will be fined $100 to $400 and four demerit points in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Fines and penalties are not enough
“The fines are one thing, but no one wants to go home at the end of the day and realize they’ve caused harm to somebody else because of a choice they made for a moment’s distraction,” said Bowman.
A CBC News crew recently travelled in an unmarked vehicle along the Trans-Canada Highway with Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officers during an operation to catch distracted drivers.
Two marked cruisers were ahead of the unmarked vehicle, ready to intercept drivers who had been spotted — and photographed. Within a short period along the highway near Cobourg, Ont., police stopped four drivers for distracted driving and issued tickets to each. The police say it’s not unusual — they typically see distraction in action within minutes.
“It’s like an addiction”
“So upsetting, right?” said Const. Ed Jowstra, who noted that last year, the OPP wrote over 13,500 tickets for distracted driving.
“Everybody knows it’s not a good idea to drive while you’re using your smartphone, and yet it seems like there’s more and more of it,” said Jowstra. He used the same phrasing as Karen Bowman, describing the phenomenon as “a disconnect.”
Police simply watch for a driver who doesn’t have their head up and eyes forward, looking at the road ahead. As soon as they spot someone looking down, even briefly, they speed up to pull alongside to get photographic evidence for use later in court. Even having the phone in your hand at a stoplight is grounds for a ticket.
“It’s like an addiction,” explained Jowstra. “If they hear a ping from the phone, or it lights up, [drivers] feel they have to pick it up.” He and other safety experts say people have been told for decades that the ability to multi-task is a good skill to have. Behind the wheel, though, focused attention is essential for safety.
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