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Road safety: Driven to distraction

With nearly 20 million cars and trucks on our roads, automobiles have become a fact of life for Canadians. But our reliance on them comes at a cost. Over the past 50 years nearly 200,000 Canadians have died in traffic accidents — more than were killed in both world wars combined. In addition, despite vastly improved safety measures automobile accidents continue to be a major cause of death of younger Canadians. CBC Archives takes a look at the long, slow road to improved traffic safety.

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In February 2002, a car wreck in the U.S. claims the lives of five people, four of them are Canadians on their way to a vacation in Florida. Soon after investigators reveal that the crash was caused by a young driver who was arguing with her boyfriend on a cellular phone. This report from CBC Television takes a look at the late night accident, which sparked concern and outrage across North America about the growing use of cellphones while driving. 
• The accident near Baltimore, Md., on Feb. 1, 2002, claimed the lives of five people including four Quebec residents, and became a watershed moment for traffic safety.
• The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board began its first investigation of cellphone use in a traffic accident after it was reported that Dawn Richardson, the 20-year-old driver of the SUV that triggered the crash, was talking on her cellphone at the time.

• The NTSB investigation concluded that the cellphone, in combination with a number of other distractions, contributed to Richardson's loss of control of her vehicle.
• After releasing their report in June 2003, NTSB recommended that all states pass laws prohibiting inexperienced drivers from using cellphones while driving.

• In June 2001 state legislators in New York voted in support of a bill that made it illegal to use a cellphone while driving except in an emergency. The law allowed for hands-free phones.
• The law came into effect in November 2001 and allowed police to issue fines of up to $100 US for violators. According to the New York Department of Public Safety, 226 cellphone tickets were written in 2001; 5,856 in 2002; and 8,384 in 2003.

• As of July 2005 at least 15 countries had banned drivers from using cellphones, including Australia, Brazil, Britain, Finland, Japan and Spain.
• Despite calls for bans on cellphone use in moving vehicles in Canada, as of 2005 the use of handheld phones while driving is prohibited only in Newfoundland. The law allows for hands-free attachments.

• Transport Canada has acknowledged that it is concerned about the role of handheld phones in accidents and says "a large proportion of the public supports some restriction on their use."
• The federal agency is currently researching the matter, but has yet to issue any warnings on their use.

• A 2002 study commissioned by Transport Canada concluded that cellphones were just one of many possible distractions that currently contribute to a driver's inattention.
• A 1997 study conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that drivers talking on cellphones (whether hand-held or hands-free) were four times more likely to get into an accident than other drivers.

• After the study was made public, an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal argued that drivers "who fail to exercise good judgment must be regulated to do so."
• As of 2001 Transport Canada said traffic collisions involving cars and trucks make up more than 90 per cent of all transportation related fatalities; well more than the combined deaths from boat, train and plane accidents.

• Among young Canadians between the ages of 15 and 24, traffic collisions accounted for more than twice as many deaths as disease and tumours combined.
• Transport Canada estimates the economic cost of traffic accidents to be up to $25 billion a year.

• Despite this, the federal agency says safety measures, such as seatbelts, divided highways, school education programs and tougher laws for impaired driving, have helped to lower death rates to their lowest point in nearly 50 years.
• Since 1984, traffic-related deaths have dropped by 33 per cent and serious injuries have dropped 35 per cent. This happened despite a 26 per cent growth in the number of cars and a 34 per cent spike in the number of drivers.

• According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Canada ranked fifth in terms of traffic fatality rates among its member countries; just ahead of Finland and just below Norway.
• The OECD ranking was based on fatalities per billion vehicle kilometres travelled during 2001. Great Britain came out on top with 7.28 deaths per billion kilometres versus Canada's 8.94 deaths. The United States ranked ninth, with 9.4 death per billion kilometres.
Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Feb. 4, 2002
Guests: Peter Barnes, Marion Blakey, John O'Toole
Host: Peter Mansbridge
Reporter: Susan Ormiston
Duration: 2:54

Last updated: July 11, 2014

Page consulted on July 11, 2014

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