Twenty years ago I wrote a stupid editorial in this magazine. Like, really stupid.
I admitted that I should be the utterly responsible commentator and agree that cell phones are evil things when used in a rolling vehicle, but then I asked, do we really need to ban their use? Legislation is appropriate with stuff like robbery and murder and fraud, I wrote, but are we going to prosecute folks for talking on the blower while they’re rolling across the prairies on a lonely summer’s night?
Hardly worth a specific law banning them, I said. What we need is a law that demands care and concentration at the wheel. But hold on here, we already have a bunch of them. There’s the one about careless driving, for instance, which seems to fit the bill pretty well. Maybe even dangerous driving. Improper lane change. Failure to yield. You name it, we’ve already got it.
Well, all that is true to a point, but the intervening history proves I was pretty wrong to diminish the risk. The cell phone is a killer, plain and simple. A recent study by Omnitracs determined that truck drivers distracted by mobile devices are at even more risky than those distracted by other means. For instance, they are 3.5x times more likely to run a stop sign or red light.
Yet despite laws, despite heavy fines, mobile phone use while driving persists. It leads to 1.6 million crashes annually as of 2019, according to the U.S. National Safety Council. It’s estimated that at least 23% of all accidents each year involve cell phone use, causing more than 4,600 deaths and almost 400,000 injuries.
It’s surprisingly difficult to see consistency in the statistics I found for either the U.S. or Canada, but the problem is obviously huge. Among the more interesting stats I’ve found, I learned that British Columbia is by quite some margin the worst for distracted driving in general.
According to a new study by Hellosafe.ca, 35% of collisions in B.C. are caused by distraction at the wheel, 26.99% of them resulting in fatalities. That study only looked at the four most populous provinces. Alberta was second worst in distraction fatalities at 24.91% of the total, and then a large gap to Ontario at 14.75% and Quebec at 13.82%. Across Canada at large, 21% of road fatalities are caused by incidents of distracted driving.
And while mobile phone use is clearly the worst driving distraction, there are many others. I’d guess that all of us can readily identify our own most common distractions, phone or otherwise.
Let me make it personal. I’ve spent 50 years driving, 49 of them legally, and I’ve seen my share of distractions. I can write publicly about most of them, and I can tell you that my use of a cell phone while driving is no longer at the top of my own danger list.
That space is reserved for conversation with my passengers. Frankly, I try to be utterly silent when I’m driving, and it bothers me immensely to have someone yakking at me while I’m trying to avoid the idiots. I recognize the need to focus constantly on the driving task, so I don’t like hauling people around at all. And if I’m forced to do so, they’d better not expect witty conversation about anything.
Second place on my list used to go to CDs, by the way, or the changing thereof. As I search through the mess on the passenger seat for the case that goes with the Bob Seger disc, I’ve been known to lose concentration. It happens, and as focus-busters go, it’s a bad one.
I’ve learned to set the cell phone aside, to limit conversation, and to forget about music and the radio pretty much altogether.
Think about this, please.
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