British Columbia

Distracted driving: texting will become largest cause of teen deaths, predicts instructor

Steve Wallace of Wallace Driving School fears texting behind the wheel is going to become the number one cause of fatal car accidents for teens in Canada.

B.C.’s minister of public safety says distracted driving penalties will be ‘strengthened’ this spring

ICBC, the province and police across B.C. are launching a new campaign to combat distracted driving. (Getty Images)

Using a mobile device while behind the wheel is going to be the number one cause of fatal car accidents for teenage drivers in B.C. and across Canada — and that's why the penalty for distracted driving has to be more severe, says a driving school CEO and instructor.

"Texting … will quickly become in Canada the chief cause of death behind the wheel for teens," said Steve Wallace of Wallace Driving School on Vancouver Island.

He said that is despite B.C. having some of the "most stringent testing regulations" on the continent for drivers.

Troubling statistics

"We've got the hardest driving test in all of North America, plus we have the longest learning stage," he said.

"As far as ICBC's rules and regulations are concerned they're probably doing the best they can … but there are other stats that are really troubling."

All numbers are based on police data covering a five-year period from 2010 to 2014. (CBC)

Wallace said he saw statistics at a recent driving school conference in the U.S. that indicat texting behind the wheel is killing an alarming number of teenagers.

Using data from police-reported crashes in 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 10 per cent of all drivers, 15 to 19 years old in fatal accidents were distracted at the time. The group made up the largest proportion of distracted drivers.

A study that same year by researchers from the Cohen Children's Medical Center reported that texting while driving surpassed drinking and driving as the leading cause of teenage deaths — stating that 3,000 teens die each year in crashes caused by texting while driving, as compared to 2,700 teens killed in drunk driving accidents.

Penalties should be the same

That, Wallace argues, is why more should be done to prevent young drivers from picking up their phone while behind the wheel.

"We usually lag two to three years behind the U.S.," he said. "It is time that the penalties for texting [and driving] are exactly the same as impaired driving."

Currently, the fines in B.C. for using an electronic device while driving, and emailing or texting while driving, are both $167 and three driver penalty points. 

Driving while impaired can result in a licence suspension and vehicle impoundment ranging from three days up to 30 days, and fines ranging between $200 and $400 — if the driver's blood alcohol level is between 0.05 and 0.08.

Police in B.C. will be ramping up enforcement in a new month-long, anti-distracted-driving campaign. (CBC/Dave Croft)

Those who have a blood alcohol level over 0.08 receive an immediate 90-day license suspension, 30-day vehicle impoundment, a $500 fine, and are enrolled in a number of driver safety programs.

"When the penalties are the same and they befit the activity, then you'll see a change in behaviour," Wallace said.

"But until the penalties are significant and the enforcement is there, then you're not going to see much of a change."

More distracted driving penalties promised

Mike Morris, B.C.'s minister of public safety and solicitor general, said in a statement that the ministry plans to change the current penalties for distracted driving soon.

"We want new drivers to learn safe driving habits from the beginning and that means leaving your phone alone and keeping both hands on the steering wheel," Morris said.

"To curb distracted driving behaviour, we are working on strengthening B.C.'s penalties and we will have an announcement later this spring."

Wallace said public schools could also do more to teach driving safety or offer the province's graduated licensing program.

His driving school, for example, has an arrangement with St. Michael's University School in which students can take a driving school class on the weekend and are then eligible for two credits towards graduation as well as a six-month reduction in the novice stage of the graduated licensing program.

"As far as drowning or electrocution, crashes that kill, kill more teens than all other accidental occurrences combined," Wallace said.

"What greater need is there than this in the school system?"

Currently, public school students can get two secondary school credits towards graduation for completing an ICBC-approved driver education course.

With files from CBC's B.C. Almanac

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