In-depth: The future of distracted driving in Canada - Keeping Canada Safe - CBC-TV
In-depth: These distractions are making us dangerous drivers. Could self-driving cars be the answer?

By Al Donato

Photo Credit: Waterloo Autonomous Vehicle lab

Canada is enjoying its lowest impaired driving rates in history, but watch out: with distracted driving on the rise, looming marijuana legislation, and technology advancements, Canadian drivers might be swerving into more road hazards than ever.

Police reported over 72,000 impaired driving incidents in 2015, continuing a declining trend, Statistics Canada states. Fewer people are dying in crashes too. The latest Canadian Motor Vehicle Traffic Collision report shows that there were 1,834 Canadian vehicle fatalities in 2014, down six per cent from 2013.

The bad news? Canada’s drunk driving deaths are still the highest across all developed countries. In a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it ranked Canada first for a whopping 34 per cent of all motor deaths related to alcohol, in cases where the risks leading to death was known.

“Most people recognize it's not a good thing to do, but a lot of them still do it. Which is typical human behaviour really,” Douglas Beirness says.

Canada’s drunk driving deaths are still the highest across all developed countries.

Beirness, an impaired driving expert from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA), remembers the early 1980s when victim advocate groups pressured lawmakers to create more impaired driving charges and harsher penalties. In 1981, 62 per cent of Canadian drivers killed on the road tested positive for alcohol, states a CCSA report.

These advocates also changed social attitudes with extensive campaigns featuring victims speaking out on their personal devastation. Through these campaigns, it became less acceptable to drive under the influence.

“Impaired driving was the number one social issue,” Beirness says. “It’s remained near the top of the social agenda for decades. if you were to ask [Canadians what the] top three issues facing society were, traffic safety still gets ranked highly.”

But some lax attitudes remain. A Mainstreet Research poll of Saskatchewan residents revealed that one in five believes drunk driving is okay for short distances, CBC News reports. A subsequent Mainstreet Research poll of Albertans found that one in five agreed.

Riding with Mary Jane

Alcohol aside, CCSA finds that impaired driving by other substances is on the rise. With marijuana legislation slated for spring or early 2018, detection has become a growing concern for road safety advocates. Right now, there are no legal limits in place, and charges are up to the arresting officer’s discretion based on impaired behavioural cues.

As per the federal task force’s recommendations, Public Safety began running a roadside detection pilot project with several Canadian law enforcement agencies in December.

Researchers are already developing oral devices that use saliva to detect traces of marijuana use. University of British Columbia (UBC) engineering professor Mina Hoorfar is hoping to have a “pot breathalyzer” on the market by 2018. Unlike saliva, which doesn’t distinguish how recent marijuana use is, or blood, which can be invasive to sample, Hoorfar says her $15 device would narrow down the window of use to two hours.

“That is going to be the step towards finding impairment because if the guy took it maybe a day or two ago before that, [it] may not be important to detect,” she says.

However, Beirness isn’t impressed.

“Finding a level for cannabis impairment has been a real problem because the effects … are so variable,” Beirness says. “Not only between individuals, but within them too. Part of this has to do with the fact that there’s no such thing as just cannabis.”

With different ways to intake, strains of varying potency, and marijuana residue staying in the system for days, the diverse effects marijuana produces can make measuring THC and CBD levels a lost cause, according to Beirness. He recommends complete abstinence, especially for young drivers.

“We spent a couple decades trying to get people to understand drinking and driving. We made a lot of progress, but we didn't solve the problem. Cannabis … is probably going to take just as long.”

Marijuana-related traffic deaths on the rise

Robyn Robertson from the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) says that part of the problem may be that drivers don’t consider marijuana an impairing substance. “There are pervasive misperceptions that cannabis is not impairing, and many users mistakenly believe that they drive more safely. This is simply not true,” she says. “Marijuana impairs perceptions of time and distance and reaction times which are critical tasks for driving.”

Although young people are at high risk for stoned driving, Beirness warns of another dangerous demographic: mature drivers who used to be stoners and overestimate their tolerance levels.

Marijuana legislation may lead to more collisions, based on what’s happened south of the border. Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012, and approved retail in 2014. It’s seen spikes in marijuana-impaired traffic deaths, and an overall 154 per cent increase from 2006 to 2014.

Increased marijuana use can also lead to increased vigilance from law enforcement outside of traditional roadcheck times, causing a massive strain on resources. Most impaired fatalities happen at night and on weekends, which may be reflective of how alcohol is consumed as a recreational substance. With marijuana, usual intake times can happen at any time of day or night.

“Right now, doing spot checks requires extra funding just to keep the lid on alcohol. If you're looking for other drugs as well, we're not doing spot checks during the week at all,” Beirness says. “We spent a couple decades trying to get people to understand drinking and driving. We made a lot of progress, but we didn't solve the problem. Cannabis…is probably going to take just as long.”

Distracted driving

Texting while driving

Driver texts at the wheel |  Photo Credit iStock Images

The Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) found that distracted driving is a factor in four million crashes every year in North America. In three provinces, distracted driving is doing more damage than driving under the influence.

Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, and Manitoba reported crashes caused by distracted driving equalled or beat out impaired driving crashes, a 2015 TIRF report states.
There are laws against distracted driving in every province and territory, except Nunavut.

Ontario is home to both the lowest and highest fines, ranging from $490 to $1,000. Texting was the most common cause of distracted driving in the province. The CAA states that if a driver texts, they’re 23 times more like to be involved in a crash or near collision.

Technically, hands-free calls and devices aren’t covered by the prosecutable definition of distracted driving. But using them can still divert valuable attention from the road. Passenger conversations, eating food, and applying makeup are other ways drivers can get distracted.

Robertson says there’s a generational gap in how drivers approach distracted driving.

If a driver texts, they’re 23 times more like to be involved in a crash or near collision.

“Young drivers may not recognize the risks posed by distraction because they fail to recognize hazards, or appreciate how rapidly the road environment can change in just two seconds,” Robertson says.
On the other hand, she notes that older drivers tend to be more confident and experienced behind the wheel, making them warier of potential distractions. But both young and older drivers fall prey to thinking distracted driving isn’t a huge safety risk.

Drowsy driving

Driving while sleepy might be road safety’s silent killer.

drowsy driver

Fatigue is a leading cause of driver fatalities | Photo credit: iStock.com

After impairing substances and speeding, fatigue is the leading cause of driver fatalities. Transport Canada reports that fatigue was a factor in up to 20 per cent of all fatal collisions. A 2008 survey by the Journal of Safety Research revealed that nearly 60 per cent of drivers admitted to occasional drowsy driving.

Queen’s University sleep expert Alistair MacLean says that fatigued driving is often the verdict once all other causes are ruled out, making it harder to track as a factor. As well, fatigued drivers tend to misjudge how exhausted they really are.

“Sleepiness-related accidents are often much more serious because drivers don’t take any avoiding action,” he says. “Even someone quite intoxicated can try to mitigate [the effects of a collision], but someone asleep can’t do that. The official statistics are unhelpful in that respect.”

In research on young drivers, MacLean found that young male drivers who were awake for over 21 hours drove similarly to those with blood alcohol levels of 0.08 per cent.

MacLean recommends caffeine and brief napping as the only solutions for improving alertness. Turning on the radio or rolling down the window reduces sleepiness, but doesn’t improve driving at all.

Anti-sleep devices are now hitting the consumer market; Wheels reports a Danish creation that beeps when drivers exhibit sleepy behaviour. The device periodically tests a driver’s reaction times by asking them to tap it. But MacLean cautions against overreliance or getting too comfortable with anything that can make drivers less motivated to take precautions.

A solution: self-driving cars?

If you live in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, be prepared to see a black Lincoln MKZ drive itself this summer.

Steven Waslander is the director of the Waterloo Autonomous Vehicles Laboratory (WAVE Lab), which is taking part in Ontario’s self-driving pilot project. As the first project of its kind in Canada, WAVE Lab will be testing the different levels of self-driving their Lincoln can handle on public roads. Next winter, the focus will be on self-driving in extreme weather conditions.

Although the technology isn’t close to fully automated driving yet, Waslander believes consumers will reap the safety benefits much sooner. Engineers will use autonomous research to build “guardian angel” systems that will alerts drivers about safety risks.

“These systems can monitor and determine when a driver is making a human error, and alert or help them recover, without necessarily having to build a fully autonomous system that understands every possible situation a car can find itself in,” he says. “If you're ever making obvious mistakes, you'll be saved from yourself. At the same time, the AI [artificial intelligence] systems will collect an incredible amount of data.”

He estimates we’ll be seeing these guardian angel systems in about 10 to 15 years, when the next generation of car fleets roll out.

As NPR reports, the U.S. Transportation Department revealed that 94 per cent of collisions are caused by human error. Waslander expects this to dramatically decrease when supervisor systems become the norm. 

He cautions against relinquishing complete control of the wheel in an automated car. Should the system miss a road hazard, inattentiveness could spell disaster.

Robertson agrees.

“At present, they [drivers] overestimate the capability of the technology, and underestimate their role in the safety equation,” she writes in a statement. “Drivers must continue to be attentive and minimize risk-taking on the road for us to achieve those promised crash reductions.”

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