British Columbia

Distracted driving tickets are mounting. Being unable to stay away from our phone is to blame, officials say

Despite stiff penalties, education campaigns and crashes, officials in B.C. continue to be dumbfounded by the seemingly habituated practice of using a cellphone while driving.

In 2020, distracted driving was on par with speeding as leading contributing factor in B.C. traffic fatalities

An RCMP officer in Burnaby looks through the window of a vehicle at a driver holding a device, which is prohibited in British Columbia. (Burnaby RCMP/Twitter)

As a media relations officer with Burnaby RCMP, Cpl. Mike Kalanj hears many stories from fellow officers, but admits some of the most outrageous come from those handing out tickets for drivers handling cellphones.

One involves an officer standing at an intersection who watched and then ticketed a driver stopped at a red light, scrolling through pictures of cats on their mobile phone. 

"The driver just admitted he was bored in traffic and thought he would look through pictures of cats," said Kalanj. "It cost him presumably $368."

Despite stiff penalties, education campaigns and crashes, officials in B.C. continue to be dumbfounded by the seemingly habituated practice of using a cellphone while driving.

This spring, some forces conducted enforcement blitzes targeting people illegally using their phones while driving.

"A lot of people think, 'I'm a really good driver and I can get away with it' ... and our statistics in motor vehicle incidents prove otherwise," said Kalanj.

In 2010 British Columbia put strict laws in place to prevent the use of hand-held cellphones, portable electronic devices and text messaging while driving.

Under the Motor Vehicle Act, only hands-free or one-touch use of electronic devices is allowed while driving, which includes sitting at traffic lights. Fully licensed drivers must mount their device or place it in a way so they won't handle it or be distracted by it.

Since 2010, enforcement tickets, now worth $368 plus additional premiums for vehicle insurance, continue to pile up.

 

Tickets issued over the course of the pandemic did drop, most likely because of fewer people driving, but as commuting and vehicle use returns to pre-pandemic levels, infractions again appear to be on the rise.

For example in Burnaby, the RCMP issued 287 tickets for distracted driving from January to March of this year, compared to 215 for the same time period in 2021 and 144 for the same time period in 2020.

"It's easy to find people on their phones almost anywhere in the city," said Kalanj. "Lots of people are doing it."

 

A recent survey done for ICBC by Ipsos said that nearly half of drivers admit they still use their phone at least one out of every 10 trips, despite the vast majority believing it's highly risky to drive and text or talk while holding a cellphone.

"They're still not translating that sort of intellectual understanding into a behaviour," said Mark Milner, road safety program manager at ICBC.

ICBC says using electronic devices, like smartphones, increases the possibility of a crash by five times. Distracted driving accounts for more than one in four fatal crashes each year.

'It's a habit'

In 2020, distracted driving was on par with speeding as the leading contributing factor in traffic fatalities in B.C., ahead of impaired driving. On average, it factors in 76 deaths annually.

Milner said distracted driving is also behind 40 per cent of crashes that cause injuries each year.

Milner said despite education campaigns, enforcement, improved technology in vehicles like bluetooth, and even unsettling stories from the courts, many people have become so habituated to using their phone that stowing it away while in their vehicles is difficult.

"It's a habit that they get into, that they need to check their phone, that they like to have it in their hands," he said.

The little-known Driver Improvement Program

Jennifer Teryn, a lawyer in Victoria who often works with people facing driving prohibitions, said few drivers who risk tickets by handling their phones while driving realize they could end up facing a ban from driving altogether even if they don't cause an accident.

"​​Nobody's expecting that," she said. "Most people don't realize that this driver improvement program exists until that letter comes in the mail."

What she is referring to is the province's Driver Improvement Program, which is managed by the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles and can prohibit someone from driving for months if they have two or more distracted driving tickets in a year.

Teryn says she gets multiple calls or emails weekly from people who have received a letter from the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles advising them that their driving record has resulted in a prohibition.

Often she simply explains that it will be very difficult and costly to have the prohibition overturned or even reduced by a month or two.

She wants people to understand that B.C. has some of the strictest driving rules in the country.

"They exist very much for a reason and I think it's really important because again the superintendent's primary goal is to maintain public safety on B.C.'s roads."

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