British Columbia·Analysis

'Perfect storm' or 'Idiot Wind?' Why are ICBC rates rising?

ICBC has blamed the rising cost of insurance rates on a 'perfect storm' of factors from distracted driving to increasing numbers of motorists. But does that explanation avoid scrutiny of the political decisions to ignore the advice of health and safety experts?

Safety experts have warned about the dangers of increased speed limits and hands-free phones in cars

ICBC says distracted driving is contributing to the 'perfect storm' of events which have resulted in a call for increased insurance rates. (CBC)

When just about anything goes wrong these days, we blame a 'perfect storm' of events. In the past week alone, the list has included tragedies ranging from cancer to a cast change at Top Gear.

But can a "perfect storm" really be held responsible for the Insurance Corporation of B.C.'s decision to hike insurance rates for the second year in a row — as the insurer claimed last week?

Or is this an example of a phenomenon the New York Times identified recently in an article titled 'How the Perfect Storm Became The Perfect Cop-out'? What the author calls recasting an "act of man as an act of God?'

Are we allowing a cliché to obscure the political decisions which — agree with them or not — ultimately affect the problems underlying ICBC's rising costs: distracted driving, speeding and the volume of vehicles in play?

Who doesn't know distracted driving is bad?

The crash rate in B.C. rose to 300,000 accidents last year, a jump of 15 per cent from 2013. It's part of a North-America-wide trend, which has insurers from Kansas to Quebec shaking their heads.

ICBC says injury claims have skyrocketed, as has the number of claims for vehicle damage. In fact, the number of vehicles on our roads has also gone up drastically — topping three million last year.

All these are the supposed elements of that 'perfect storm,' with the phenomenon of distracted driving cast as the hurricane's eye.

As ICBC and police prepare to roll out their zillionth anti-distracted driving campaign next month, it's hard to believe any motorist with an IQ of more than about 10 doesn't realize driving while using a handheld electronic device is bad.

Police and ICBC are planning to launch another anti-distracted driving campaign this fall. But who doesn't know it's bad? (RCMP)

The province had a chance to tackle the problem definitively earlier this year. 

And yet while focusing on tougher penalties, lawmakers ignored the advice of stakeholders who suggested banning devices now standard in new vehicles: GPS, Wi-Fi, TV screens and hands-free technology.

The evidence suggests speaking on a hands-free phone is just as distracting as talking on your smart phone. The only difference is the driver gets a false sense of security, because one is permitted and the other not.

But the province ultimately decided to ignore that advice, focusing instead on tripling fines so that a first-time offence now costs $543 as opposed to $167.

That's a good idea but are people thinking about the size of the penalty when they risk a ticket by sneaking a peak at a buzzing phone? And if so, why not suspend an offender's licence to make it really hurt?

Policy viewed as 'problematic'

B.C. Injury Research and Prevention Unit director Ian Pike was one of those calling for a hands-free ban. He believes the rules fall short of what is required.

"I view that with some disappointment. I hope and I hear often that governments are basing their policies on the evidence, and the evidence would suggest that whether it's a hand-held or a hands-free phone device, they both are associated with distractions and resulting crashes and injuries," he says.

"In that regard, I view our policy to allow hands-free devices in this province as problematic."

Pike is also one of six prominent engineers and health experts who penned a letter to the Vancouver Sun this summer questioning the Transportation Ministry's decision to raise speed limits on 33 segments of rural highways in 2014.

Health and safety experts question the province's decision to increase speed limits on 33 sections of rural highways in 2014. (CBC)

They cited a study by a civil engineering professor at the University of B.C. which found an 11 per cent increase in fatal and injury crashes on the 1,300 kilometres of rural highways where speed limits increased.

The letter said those roads, by the way, account for 10 per cent of all traffic deaths in the province.

Pike and the others are calling for a reinstatement of the previous limits, but as of yet, the government has only lowered the speed on two of them.

A bridge too far?

And what about all those additional cars on our roads? Part of ICBC's problem is simple math: the more cars, the more claims.

The sale of motor vehicles is no doubt a crucial industry to B.C. But isn't government supposed to be encouraging people to get out of their cars?

The province opted instead for a referendum last year to decide the fate of transit projects deemed crucial for both reducing the number of cars on Lower Mainland roads and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Not surprisingly, a majority of Metro Vancouver voters weighed in against paying .05 more in provincial sales tax in order to raise $2.5 billion over the next decade. You'll note there's no similar vote planned for insurance rates.

The province and the City of Vancouver have also rejected attempts by ride-sharing services like Uber to set up shop in B.C. The taxi industry has been blamed. Regardless, the end result is the limiting of an extra option for people who don't want to drive.

An artist's rendering of the proposed bridge to replace the George Massey tunnel. (Province of B.C.)

And last month's long-awaited climate change plan does promise updates and investment in transit, but it also includes the construction of a 10-lane bridge to replace the George Massey tunnel.

Metro Vancouver mayors have already spoken out collectively against the project, saying it's unlikely to reduce congestion. How it's going to slow the pace of vehicle registration is hard to see.

Pike, the injury researcher, says people should look for accountability before shelling out more for car insurance. Even if it's to themselves.

"Our government and we collectively, we decide through reaction to policy or through our collective vote, the things we want in place," he says.

"But like most things, there are different voices and different voices with different volumes carry weight politically."

So is it a 'perfect storm' or, in the words of Bob Dylan, an 'Idiot Wind'?  

As the song goes: "It's a wonder we can even feed ourselves."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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