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End Distracted Driving


Driving while distracted has become a major, if not the major, traffic safety issue in North America. In some jurisdictions distracted driving has eclipsed drunk driving as a leading cause of accident and injury. The headlines of today are filled with descriptions of tragic accidents involving drivers that weren’t paying enough attention and caused an accident. 

Many jurisdictions around the world have banned the use of electronic devices like cell phones because of the cost of distracted driving. British Columbia, along with other jurisdictions in North America, have regulated the use of cell phones, but not as yet completely banned their use while driving. More needs to be done as this is a problem that runs across generations in our society. Simply ask yourself if you have ever glanced at your phone or sent a text while driving, and for parents in particular, whether you have done so while your children are in the vehicle.  The problem is everyone seems to be doing it.

Cell phone use has had the most blame for this traffic safety issue, however, the use of cell phones is only one of the major contributors to distracted driving, it is not the only contributing factor. 


So what is distracted driving?

The most comprehensive definition of distracted driving comes from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a division of the U.S. Transportation Department, which defines distracted driving as:

            “Any activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving.”

All distractions while driving have the potential to endanger driver, passenger and bystander safety. Examples of the typical distractions include:

·       Texting;

·       Using a cell phone or smart phone;

·       Eating and drinking;

·       Talking to passengers;

·       Grooming;

·       Reading, including maps;

·       Using a navigation system;

·       Watching a video; and

·       Adjusting a radio, CD player or MP3 player.


Traffic safety experts classify distractions into 3 main types: manual, visual and cognitive. Manual distractions are those which you move your hands away from the task of controlling the vehicle. Reaching for a soda in a drink carrier is an example of a manual distraction. Visual distractions are those where you focus your eyes away from the road. Your drop your soda and, when it spills all over the floor of the car, you look down at your ruined shoes and stained slacks; that’s a visual distraction. A cognitive distraction is when your mind wanders away from the task of driving. For example you start to consider whether you can afford to replace the clothing you just ruined and what stores have bargains this week. This means you are no longer paying attention to the essential job of driving; this is a cognitive distraction. Studies show that because text messaging requires visual, manual and cognitive attention from the driver, it is by the far the most alarming distraction.

While there is no data for British Columbia and other jurisdictions in Canada, in the U.S., as of December 2012 the studies show that at any given daylight moment across the U.S., approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving.  Studies show that sending or receiving a text message distracts a driver for about 5 seconds; at highway speeds, that represents a distance of about 300 feet in which the vehicle is essentially out of human control, driving itself!

A researcher from the University of Utah, David Strayer, found that talking on a cell phone quadruples your risk of an accident, about the same as if you were driving drunk. That risk doubles again to, 8 times the normal risk, if you are texting. Texting while driving creates more risk of accident than driving drunk!

Consistent with the research in the U.S., the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) has published some sobering “odds” in terms of distractions while driving that are more likely to cause a crash or near crash event compared to non-distracted drivers.

For example:

·       Text messaging (or texting) on a cell phone – 23 times more likely

·       Talking on a cell phone – 4 to 5 times more likely

·       Applying makeup – 3 times more likely

·       Reading – 3 times more likely


The Costs of Distracted Driving

In British Columbia the evidence of various research studies shows that driver distraction, of all types, is connected with approximately 25% of motor vehicle accidents in the province. These accidents result in significant cost to society in terms of the tragic loss of life, serious injuries, and resulting monetary costs. The issue of driver distraction has been steadily and consistently growing in tandem with the increasing use of technological devices such as cellular phones, MP3 players, DVD’s, GPS units and other electronic devices.

A recent discussion paper commissioned by the Minister of Public Safety and the Solicitor General of the province of B.C. notes that driver distraction of all types is associated with approximately 117 deaths each year and about 1400 hospitalizations. The loss of life, the serious injuries that result in lifelong disabilities and the toll on families cannot be measured.

In the U.S. the NHTSA estimates that the number of people killed in distraction affected crashes was 3,328 killed and an estimated 4,210 were injured in 2012 involving a distracted driver. 10% of all drivers under the age of 20 that were involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash, this age group has the largest proportion of drivers who are distracted. Drivers in their 20’s make up 27% of the distracted drivers in fatal crashes in the United States.

In Canada, the Canadian Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) published findings from a 2007 poll showing that 70% of Canadians considered distracted driving to be a serious problem. In a 2008 Angus Reid poll in British Columbia, 85% of British Columbians supported a ban on hand held cellular phones.

If the public has significant awareness of the dangers of distracted driving and support a ban on cell phone use while driving, why is it still a problem? Based on the efforts of local governments in British Columbia and other jurisdictions, and up to the provincial and federal governmental levels, it is clear that distracted driving is a noted concern within our society. The problem is that drivers do not seem to be taking the concerns seriously enough. There is universal agreement that distracted driving is a significant road safety issue, however, the trend seems to be that it is a problem “because of the conduct of others” rather than ourselves; we find excuses for our own risky driving behaviour. If you took the time to do an honesty poll in a room of 100 random people and asked them if they had ever texted on their cell phone, answered their cell phone or looked at an email on their cell phone while driving, the vast majority would have their hand up. In a survey from the American Automobile Association regarding traffic safety, over 90% of drivers recognize the danger from cell phone distractions and found it “unacceptable” that drivers text or send email while driving. Never the less, 35% of those same people admitted to having read or sent a text message or mail while driving in a previous month. Similarly, two thirds of the survey respondents admitted to talking on a cell phone, even though 80% found it a threat to safety.


What Can We Do To End Distracted Driving?

The answer to this is simple; every person has to take responsibility for their own conduct in order to reduce and hopefully end accidents caused by distracted driving. Distracted driving crashes are 100% preventable!

We all have likely driven while distracted at one point or another and so increasing the awareness of everyone is the best first step to end distracted driving. Given that teens and young people are at the most risk of death or injury as a result of distracted driving, as the most at risk group, they need to be educated on the hazards and focused to alter their behaviour.

Parents that have driven distracted with their children in their need to change the way they drive and demonstrate safe non-distracted driving every time they get in the vehicle with their children. Teens whose parents drive distracted are more than twice as likely to also drive distracted. Employers should talk to their employees about safe non-distracted driving and establish cell phone policies for employees banning their use while operating a motor vehicle at work.

With the higher risk for teens for death or injury from distracted driving, starting the education of teens before they start driving can only help reduce the risk. With the significant success with the educational programs against drunk driving starting in high schools, education of young drivers seems to be the best place to start.

Using tools such as a “family safe driving agreement” with your teen driver, which sets out obligations and restrictions regarding the operation of a vehicle and the use of cell phones and other electronic devices while driving, can help reduce the risk. There is an excellent organization out of the U.S. that is now coming in to Canada called End Distracted Driving (website: End Distracted Driving is fostering awareness and educating teens about the hazards of distracted driving using real life examples. Visit their website and download a copy of the Family Safe Driving Agreement (FSDA).

Better awareness, education, and most importantly, all of us focusing on our responsibility to not drive distracted will all help us deal with the problem of distracted driving. There are no excuses. Whether you believe you are a “good driver”, “have never been in a crash”, “it’s just for a seconds”, “nothing will happen”, or “I can multitask”; these are just excuses to drive while distracted. This is not just a teen problem; it is every adult’s problem as well. We all need to take responsibility and take action to deal with it. That text message or email can wait, that cell phone call can be ignored, or you can take a few moments to pull over and look at your vehicle navigation system. If you do it, others will follow by the example, including most importantly your children.



Michael Yawney, Partner, Nixon Wenger LLP

To learn more about Mike and our lawyers at Nixon Wenger LLP, click here.



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