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Smartphones, other distractions can be more deadly than impaired driving, data suggests

In Ontario so far this year, provincial police have tallied more fatalities from distracted driving than impaired driving, writes Dianne Buckner.

Distracted driving collisions pushing up insurance premiums

This photo, taken by Ontario Provincial Police on Highway 401, was used as evidence to convict a distracted driver. (Ontario Provincial Police)

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.

"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."

In addition to the deaths and injuries, the number of collisions related to distracted driving — which encompasses not only smartphone use but also eating, applying makeup or fiddling with the radio while behind the wheel — is pushing up the price of auto insurance across the board. Some Canadians say they've even been denied comprehensive and collision insurance because of a distracted driving conviction.

Drivers are quick to point the finger at others, though. In a recent survey commissioned by Desjardins Insurance, 93 per cent of participants said they "rarely or never" drive distracted by a cellphone while 84 per cent 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.

Karen Bowman, centre, works with the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, giving presentations about distracted driving to students across Canada. (Marc Baby/CBC News)

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. A conviction in Ontario will result in a $615 fine, plus a three-day suspension. Then there's a $280 fee to reinstate the licence, and an increase in insurance premiums. 

"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.

Unmarked police vehicles

A CBC News crew recently travelled in an unmarked vehicle along Highway 401 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. 

"So upsetting, right?" said Const. Ed Jouwstra, 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 Jouwstra. He used the same phrasing as Karen Bowman, describing the phenomenon as "a disconnect."

OPP officers were able to determine that driver distraction was the cause of this fatal crash near Cobourg, Ont. (OPP)

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 Jouwstra. "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. 

Insurance industry takes aim

Lisa Guglietti, chief operating officer of the Co-operators Group, said that given "all the safety features that are being built into vehicles now, you would actually expect that trend should be coming down."

But over the last couple of years, "we've noticed that the number of collisions we're seeing has been going up, and so we started asking questions."

A number of Canadian insurance companies are trying to tackle the problem, financing surveys and sponsoring educational strategies. For example:

  • The Co-operators has sponsored TIRF's Karen Bowman to make a series of safety presentations about distracted driving at public schools, to students as young as grade six, letting them know they have rights as passengers and that they should speak up to parents who may be using a phone while driving. 

  • Earlier this year, Wawanesa Insurance sponsored a social media campaign against distracted driving on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, encouraging people to use the "do not disturb" feature on their smartphones.

  • Desjardins Insurance invested in a national survey on the subject, and noted that 53 per cent of participants admitted to having driven distracted by their cellphones "at least once" since they got drivers licenses, a 15 per cent jump from last year.

  • HTM Insurance in Cobourg helped Jouwstra and his OPP colleagues purchase a $40,000 driving simulator, which they use in sessions with high school students, to show them what happens to their driving skills when they give in to distraction.

The Co-operators' Guglietti said the number of collisions in general is driving up the price of insurance for everyone. 

OPP officers took a simulator to East Northumberland Secondary School in Brighton, Ont., to teach students about the dangers of distraction. (Marc Baby/CBC News)

"Insurance is just a pool," she said, explaining that claims are paid from the combined premiums that have been collected. "So if we see more claims coming in, the cost of the pool is going up, and therefore the premiums are going up as well." 

Alec Harmer, CEO of HTM Insurance, cited an example of insurance for an 18-year-old male with a G2 license driving a 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt. One distracted conviction will cause their premium to jump from about $3,000 to $5,500 a year — a 75 per cent increase.

The OPP's Jouwstra said the solution is simple: Put the phone away, into the glove box or the back seat as soon you get into the driver's seat.

"Turn it off," he said. "Don't even have it near you. The temptation is just too great."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story mistakenly said CBC did a ride-along with Ontario Provincial Police officers on the Trans-Canada Highway during an operation to catch distracted drivers. In fact, the operation was on Highway 401.
    Oct 29, 2019 7:06 PM ET

About the Author

Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.

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