Despite crackdowns, distracted driving remains a problem across Canada

When a distracted driver was pulled over recently by RCMP, the officer was shocked to find the driver had 12 prior convictions for using an electronic device while behind the wheel. It's an extreme example, but distracted driving remains a persistent problem in Canada, according to experts.

Distracted driving laws exist in nearly every jurisdiction, but behaviours are hard to change, says expert

While nearly every jurisdiction in Canada has legislation around using hand-held phones while driving, distracted driving remains a significant problem. (CBC)

When a distracted driver in B.C. was pulled over recently after nearly colliding with an RCMP cruiser, the officer was shocked by what he saw.

The driver had 12 prior convictions for using an electronic device while behind the wheel.

The record of a woman recently stopped by Richmond RCMP, when they caught her using an electronic device while driving. She had 12 prior convictions. (Twitter/@RichmondRCMP)
While it's an extreme example, distracted driving remains a persistent problem, according to the Traffic Injury Research Foundation — a Canadian non-profit organization devoted to reducing deaths and injuries on the road.

Robyn Robertson, president and CEO of the foundation, said distraction-related deaths have increased 26 per cent in the past decade — and people still aren't entirely embracing the message that distracted driving is dangerous.

"Anecdotally from police, we're seeing that there does seem to be that persistence in people wanting to use their phones while they're driving, or engage in distracting behaviours," she said, while adding there is some hope.

"The police said that they are seeing some positive change with people using their phones less, or at least switching to a hands-free device."

Robertson said police are also reporting more social shaming, such as drivers in other cars, yelling or waving to drivers to put away their phones.

Distracted driving remains a problem across Canada. In a month-long project, Calgary Grade 3 students such as TJ Lorenson (above) counted 460 incidents of distracted driving. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)
Even so, distracted driving remains a big enough problem that the Ontario Provincial Police recently said it is the largest cause of fatal road crashes in that province, killing more drivers than either speeding or impaired driving.

Across Canada, there are efforts to address the problem through enforcement. The OPP have launched another blitz to warn drivers about the dangers of distracted driving, for example, and B.C.'s Minister of Public Safety Mike Morris has promised tougher penalties this spring.

In Alberta, even Grade 3 students got in on the act with a group of Calgary students recording 460 incidents of distracted driving during a month-long project.

Five provinces in the past year alone have increased penalties for using phones while driving and Nunavut remains the only Canadian jurisdiction without any legislation around using hand-held phones in a car, according to the Canadian Automobile Association.

Beyond penalties, the risks are high. The CAA said drivers are 23 times more likely to be in a crash or near crash when texting on a cell phone, and four to five times more likely to be involved in an accident if they're talking on a phone.

So why do Canadian drivers continue to engage in risky behaviour that can lead to fines or demerits?

Robyn Robertson is president and CEO of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, which recently released a report calling for a national strategy to deal with distracted driving. (
"I think they know that it's bad but they also don't appreciate the risks. They think that I'll see it, I'll be able to respond. And it's not until you can't respond and you don't see it that you really appreciate what the risks are," said Robertson.

She also said that while smartphones are relatively new, mobile phones are not and it can be very difficult to change ingrained habits.

"A lot of the behaviours that we now know are distracting, we have been doing in cars for a very long time," she said.

"And it's really a shift of gears to tell people, 'No the behaviour that you've been doing in your car for the last decade or two decades is actually risky, and you shouldn't do it anymore.'"

To help drive that message home, the Traffic Injury Research Foundation recently released a comprehensive report called Distracted Driving in Canada: Making Progress, Taking Action.

It calls for a national action plan to combat the problem, and recommends the creation of a national working group on distracted driving to build a strategy. Along with the release of the report, TIRF announced it had secured funding to take the lead on establishing that working group.

TRIF said it hopes that the collection of better data will increase understanding of the magnitude of the problem of distracted driving — and help shape enforcement and education strategies to curb it.


Jason Osler is the national 'trends' columnist for CBC Radio.


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