Dangers of Distracted Driving

Today, we know that distracted driving is now the leading cause of road fatalities, surpassing impaired driving and continuing to rise year-over-year across provinces. 

The Travelers Institute has surveyed almost a thousand Canadian drivers across our country to understand the “why” behind distracted driving. Their research found that 51% of Canadian drivers who answer or make communications while driving use their mobile device once a week or more. They felt compelled to do so because of family obligations, fear of missing out, and because of work expectations to be constantly available. 

The findings help draw attention to the root causes of such risky behaviour and enable each of us to influence change. 

What’s Happening on Our Roads? 

Lane departure warnings. Automatic emergency braking. Backup cameras. Drivers today have more technology than ever to help avoid collisions. But still, there continues to be a concerning number of traffic fatalities on our Canadian streets and highways. In 2015, 1,858 Canadians died in traffic collisions, according to Transport Canada. 

What’s Driving Those Deadly Numbers? 

An important contributing factor to these collisions is the growing North American epidemic of distracted driving. In particular, the use of hand-held devices by Canadian drivers continues to impact the safety of all road users across every jurisdiction of the country. In Ontario, our highest-populated Canadian province, distracted driving has claimed the lives of more people than speed-related, seatbelt-related, or alcohol-related collisions for the fifth consecutive year. 

Provincial legislators, federal agencies, law enforcement and corporate Canada have supported education campaigns and developed strategies to identify and combat distracted driving. But with drivers covering more kilometres, efforts to combat distracted driving have, thus far, fallen short of the mark: “Canadians have more safety tools than ever to avoid collisions, but there are also greater distractions than before,” said Gary Walsh, a Travelers Canada Risk Control safety professional. “It comes down to where you choose to focus your attention. Focus on the road – the greater the attention, the safer the trip.” Drivers who are distracted and driving more kilometres often find themselves in potentially dangerous situations.  

According to a 2018 Travelers survey of adult Canadian drivers, ten per cent of respondents have been pulled over and/or faced legal consequences for driving distracted, and five per cent have caused an accident because of their own distracted driving. Even drivers who are actively paying attention and scanning the road face risks because they need to react quickly and safely to incidents that may be caused by other drivers’ distraction. And distraction impacts more than just drivers. Of the 1,858 fatalities in Canada in 2015, more than 15 per cent were pedestrians. 


A Deeper Look at Distraction 

The Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators (CCMTA) defines distracted driving as “the diversion of attention from driving, as a result of the driver focusing on a non-driving object, activity, event or person. This diversion reduces awareness, decision-making or performance leading to increased risk of driver error, near-crashes or crashes. The diversion of attention is not attributable to a medical condition, alcohol/drug use and/ or fatigue.” It is dangerous and common. Surprisingly, cellphones and texting are just part of the problem. Other behaviours behind the wheel, such as drinking coffee or using a navigation system, may also be putting you at risk. 

Driving with Your Eyes Closed: Manual and Visual Distractions 

One of the most important ways people detect danger is through visual observation. To drive while visually distracted means taking your eyes off the road and not seeing potential problems on the road ahead. Unfortunately, this extremely dangerous behaviour happens frequently.  

Manual distractions happen when you take your hand or hands off the wheel, for example, when eating or texting. Taking your eyes off the road for just two seconds can have consequences. At 100 km/h, that’s the equivalent of driving 52 metres or the length of a hockey rink with your eyes closed. 

Overall, studies have shown that visual distraction from activities such as dialling or texting on a cellphone can increase driving risk substantially, ranging from five times more likely to have a collision 7 to 23 times more likely to be involved in an unsafe driving event. 

Overworking Your Brain: Cognitive Distraction 

The brain can only process so much information at a time. When people attempt to perform multiple tasks at once, such as driving while also eating or talking on a cellphone, these multiple tasks compete for the brain’s attention. Drivers may not only be taking a hand off the wheel, but also taking their minds off the road. These mental distractions, also called cognitive distractions, can contribute to a driver’s inability to fully process the visual scene. 

According to a 2018 Travelers survey of over 900 Canadian drivers, 69 per cent of respondents think the biggest distraction to the average person while driving is using a mobile device. Yet only 24 per cent of those surveyed think using a mobile device is the biggest distraction to their own driving. Still, that same survey found that 51 per cent of Canadian drivers who answer/ make communications while driving use their mobile device to do so once a week or more often. 


What You Can Do to Help Prevent Distracted Driving 

Sometimes, it is not your actions as a driver or pedestrian that lead to dangerous situations, but the actions of others. However, there are things you can do to proactively protect yourself and your family. 

Here are some ideas for becoming a proactive driver: 

  1. Assume you are invisible. It can be easy to assume everyone else on the road is paying attention, following traffic laws, and can see you clearly. However, that is not always the case. The next time you are expecting other drivers to respect your right-of-way or let you merge into another lane; do not assume they are on the same page. 
  2. Avoid aggressive driving. Whenever you are on the road, resist the urge to drive aggressively. Instead, go with the speed of the surrounding traffic and drive defensively. See yourself as part of a community of drivers – all trying to get to your destinations safely. Your improved driving behaviour may rub off on others and help create safer conditions for everyone on the road. 
  3. Control your emotions. Taking the high road is often the best route. Remember to be patient, keep a safe following distance, and avoid confronting aggressive drivers. 
  4. Lead by example. Changing social norms around distracted driving starts with good drivers setting positive examples for others about what is, and what is not, socially acceptable behaviour on the road. 
According to a 2018 Travelers survey of adult Canadian drivers, 42 per cent have asked a driver to stop using their mobile device while they were a passenger in their car. 

Drivers can set expectations for their friends and family, passengers can speak up to distracted drivers, and everyone can avoid calling or texting when a loved one is behind the wheel. 

If you have been convicted of a distracted driving infraction your car insurance premium can increase as much as 25%. More than 2 tickets or a conviction for careless driving would make you a high-risk driver and risk your insurance being cancelled.  Avoid driving distracted. Taking that call or answering that text, simply isn’t worth the potential consequences. It’s too risky and costly. Avoid temptation and turn off your device while driving, or if you really must reach out to someone, pull over first. 

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