Getting tough on distracted driving

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In last month’s column I expressed bemusement with drivers who ignore bad winter weather and try to go about their business as though it’s always a sunny summer day and they are the only ones on the road.

I mentioned that technology can help when common sense is absent and offered several examples of technological innovation commonly used in trucking that could likely be adapted for passenger vehicles. One of these suggestions struck a nerve with a reader.

Kevin wrote in to say that one of the pieces of technology I referred to in my column isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be in the eyes of some professional drivers. He provided a few examples of issues that he and other drivers have had with the equipment and suggested that regulation and technology can’t be entirely relied on to correct all bad driving habits.

Let me say first that I appreciate hearing from Kevin, and as I promised him, I will be discussing his concerns with the manufacturer. Secondly, I agree with his point that regulation and technology combined can’t provide a complete answer to the problem. We do however need to embrace technology that has been proven to work.

Continuing on the theme of trying to correct poor driving habits, a judge in Ontario recently announced that the fines for distracted driving (ie., using a prohibited hand-held device while driving) will nearly double beginning in March. The judge apparently sees this issue as a particular bugbear because the government didn’t even ask her to weigh in on the subject prior to her announcement. But she may be on the right track.

The evidence is in: the existing level of fines for the use of cell phones and other hand-held devices while driving simply do not provide enough of a deterrent for many drivers, and that’s likely why she acted. Anecdotally, we all witness inappropriate and illegal cell phone use almost every day and statistics confirm the risks involved.

The OPP reported that in 2013 more traffic fatalities were the result of distracted driving than drunk driving – 78 vs 57.

Toronto police reported that over 55,000 distracted driving charges were laid in the city between 2010 and 2012. Fifty-five thousand! Add to that the 19,000 charges laid by the OPP in 2013 alone and the picture becomes even clearer – the risks inherent in distracted driving are simply not a concern to many drivers.

The CAA provides some alarming statistical evidence on its Web site. Here’s a sample: Drivers engaged in text messaging are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash or near crash event compared with non-distracted drivers. (Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, 2010); 80% of collisions and 65% of near crashes have some form of driver inattention as contributing factors (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2010); International research shows that 20-30% of all collisions involve driver distraction (Alberta Transportation, 2011).

In an earlier column in this space I referred to a CCMTA study entitled Addressing Human Factors in the Motor Carrier Industry. The report addresses a number of factors that result in collisions, mainly relating to inattention caused either by fatigue or distraction. There it is again – distraction.

Transport Canada published a report in late 2013 expressing concern over the proliferation of in-vehicle telematics, devices incorporating wireless communications technologies to provide information services, vehicle automation and other functions to drivers.

Here’s a quote from the executive summary of that report: “Transport Canada is concerned that in-vehicle telematics devices are a threat to road safety because they can increase driver distraction and cause an increase in distraction-related crashes. This concern is based on a substantial and mounting body of evidence indicating that using these devices impairs driving performance.”

The report suggested that although cellular telephones are currently the most common type of telematics devices used in vehicles, other technologies and applications, such as navigation, adaptive cruise control and Internet access, are increasingly entering the market, and are expected to become standard features in vehicles in the near future.

There’s more: in the July 2013 issue of Canadian Family Physician, Dr. Victoria Lee addressed the topic and made the point that, much like the issue of drinking and driving, addressing the problem of cell phone use while driving will not be easy. Several observations in her article merit consideration. For example, employers should prohibit cell phone use while driving on company time and cell phone modifications could be designed to block cell phone use while driving.

While that latter suggestion may seem drastic and counter to the argument that favours hands-free, or Bluetooth-enabled devices, there is also plenty of informed opinion that believes holding the device is not the real problem – it’s the distraction of the conversation.

As Dr. Tom Schweizer of St. Michael’s hospital in Toronto said, “Hands-free isn’t brains-free.”

We’ve still got a potentially long, uphill battle ahead if we are to eliminate the most common form of distracted driving – cell phone use – but one judge has taken an important step.

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  • I’ve said it all along, it’s not the devise that is the issue, it’s the individual. Ever riden with a driver that is all over the road because they are in a conversation in the vehicle? Others have driven off the road trying to pick something up off the floor. Some people can chew gum and walk at the same time and some can’t. Why is it that police officers are allowed to talk on the cell, and work a laptop right next to them while driving and professional drivers are not? Their mental capacity superior or something?

  • Hi-I was a victim of distracted driving Jan 10 2013. I was walking home after leaving the gym on a sunny day and the car run on the sidewalk and was hit from the rear! The fine was $600.00 and no suspension of license! I am still in treatment and basically housebound. The police Issued 48,000 tickets in Vancouver last year for “devices” used while driving.The fine is $167.00? I doubt nothing will change until loss of a license is part of the charge against the drivers, as business men use cell phones constantly while driving.

  • I am out of pocket $ 800.00 due to distracted drivers and pedestrians. A pedestrian ran I into the side of my truck while using a cell phone crossing a road way. My rear fender was damaged but he could have been killed. Another ran his left mirror into my left mirror due his use of the cell phone while driving. My mirror was damaged to the tune of $ 300.00. Until people lose their drivers licence for this dangerous practice the problem will not go away. Distracted driving (cell phone or other distractions) should carry the same penalty as impaired driving.
    Transport Canada should ban OEM’s from installing all of these telematics in vehicles and cell phone signals blockage can easily be done and should. No one is soo important that they must talk on the phone while driving.