Distracted Driving – An Inconvenient Truth

By Derek Lewers

I am an avid news junkie with a keen interest in analyzing and applying critical thinking to news, especially when it comes to government policies. I often find statistics manipulated to suit the narrative of the day. The issue of distracted driving / cell phones slowly became an issue in our media around 2008 and started to reach a fever pitch (in part by a charge led by the BC Association of Police Chiefs) leading up to BC’s 2010 introduction of the Use of Electronic Devices legislation. Overnight, we went from a society where people were using their phones lawfully on a regular basis, to a society where people started to finger wave, yell, etc. at drivers who, only the day before a stroke of a pen and the legislation came in, were law-abiding citizens. I have watched the cell phone paranoia grow in recent years, and do so to a fever pitch in recent months; with heavy media campaigns from government spin doctors telling us how evil those that use their phones are. I began to pay attention to the statistics used to claim how dangerous they (cell phones) were versus the government claims of increased crashes due to cell phone use. At the same time, I found it odd that the “Speed Kills” campaign seemed to have taken a back seat.

When I observe social media today, there are plenty of armchair traffic experts to quickly decide responsibility lies with a person on a phone in the event of a crash. If not, then the cause of the crash must be speed. When I heard that distracted driving was now the number 2 cause of death on BC Roads, I was naturally curious what the other causes were. This prompted me to get a breakdown of the data that government/ICBC/ and police agencies use to justify their positions so I could compare that data to cell phone usage statistics. I applied logic to what I was hearing vs. what I saw on the roads on a daily basis, and thought that if the problem were as big as we were being told, we would be seeing mass carnage on the roadways.

And this, to me, did not appear to be the case.

The BC Government and ICBC now like to repeat the message that distracted driving is the #2 cause of vehicle deaths in BC. However, they fail to mention that they have only 3 main categories, which they use to track vehicle deaths (Impaired, Speeding, and Distracted Driving). They also fail to mention, that as one of the three main categories, distracted driving deaths are down on average since they peaked in 2005; and the only reason that distracted driving is now #2, is that the impaired category went down in the past few years.
So at any given time, one of those categories is going to be holding one of those places, and that place will change depending on the activity in all 3 categories. When it comes to talking about how many tickets they issue for distracted driving, they use the figure of approximately 54,000 tickets. What they do not say, is that only about 1,000 of those 54,000 (<2%) tickets are issued for people emailing or texting on a phone. The remaining tickets are for either talking on your phone or just simply touching it. Significantly is that on average in the past 10 years, electronics/communications devices were only found to be contributing factors in about 1-2 deaths per year.
Distracted driving is a contributing factor in approximately 30% of crashes today. In 2006 before the iPhone, Distracted Driving stood at 35.6%. Traffic fatalities have decreased about 50% in the western world since 1996. However, in the same time frame, cellphone subscribers in Canada have increased 550%.(according to the CWTA). Despite being the world’s second largest country by land mass (which means most of us spend more time on the road than other countries), BC’s deaths per 100,000 population was targeted for 5.4 in 2014. By comparison, the noted safest countries in the world when it comes to driving, like Norway and Germany (no highway speed limit, and 1/3 the size of BC), are 5 and 4 per 100,000 respectively. Canada’s rate is 6.5. To put this all in perspective, 1 death per year in BC is attributed to electronics communications devices, which is .48% of all vehicle deaths in 2013.

Not exactly the bogey man the government wants you to believe is it?

The following are other accidental death causes in BC and you can see for yourself that if it’s all about saving lives, there are many other causes of death which should take priority over pouring more taxpayer resources into more traffic enforcement/stiffer penalties.

Failing to wear a seatbelt – 62 deaths
High risk behavior- failing to yield, following too close, improper passing, ignoring traffic control devices, excessive speed (not distracted drivers) – 143 deaths
Accidental Poisoning – 288
Falls – 624
Suicide – 426
Homicide – 40
Police Related – 17.8
Drowning – 32

Cell phones have become an emotional issue based on perception, instead of logic and fact. I believe that media sensationalism is a significant reason for it. Sensationalism is what sells, media is about selling advertising, and much of that advertising comes from governments.

There are many forms distraction can come in, and many are hard to quantify. How can the police assess your emotional state when driving, if you are daydreaming, paying too much attention to the billboard on the highway, prove that by drinking the bottle of water in your car you are distracted and a danger to others on the roadway? The legislation that the BC Chiefs of Police sought, I believe led by Jamie Graham Chief of Victoria PD and Chair of the Traffic Safety Committee of the BC Association of Chiefs of Police, wanted to target electronic devices specifically. Prior to this legislation, we had a “driving without due care and attention” law, but the burden of proof was heavy. The antidote was seen as having a law saying if the police see you touching ANY electronic device while in your car at any time you are on a roadway, it would justify a ticket. This provided great clarity and removed that burden of proof of use. So electronics became easier to target, and with cell phone use exploding in the past 15 years or so, it also made the job of police easier. Cell phone laws are now common worldwide, and these days no government wants to be the last to act, nor be left behind when it comes to safety, and the BC Government is no exception. I also believe issues like cell phones are easy soft targets. They keep the public distracted from holding their elected representatives accountable from the more important issues, by encouraging us to be on the road as cell phone police.

The topic of Distraction is a distraction itself.

Accidents are basically caused by 3 things: The human condition (Impaired, falling asleep, distraction, inattention, aggression etc.), the human action (excessive speed, fail to yield, follow too closely, ignoring traffic devices etc.), and environmental factors (including Acts of God). When police investigate serious/fatal collisions, they fill out a Traffic Accident Report to best determine the factors that led to the accident. On this report, they check off the appropriate box of Human Condition or Human Action, and then list the conditions or actions that they believe to have been the contributing factors to the crashes. When they are assigning those contributing factors, they are allowed to assign up to 4 contributing factors to any one crash, and the contributing factors are not in priority order. So, if there is a crash and police find evidence that the driver was impaired, driving too fast for road conditions, talking on his/her phone, and/or went through a red light, they would fill in 4 boxes. When the report is tallied at the year end, each of those contributing factors would show as contributing factors and count in the death/serious injury totals. This would then mean that although the driver was driving impaired, “use of an electronic communications device” would be on the annual reports as contributing to that accident/death along with the other categories. However, police do not assign death cause factors, this is left to the coroner, so If the driver was not wearing seatbelt, but crashed while talking on the phone and was impaired, the driver may show as a death statistic in the “distracted driving category” as well as the “impaired category”, however the death may have actually occurred as a result of failing to wear a restraint device.

According to statistics found on the CAA website, and attributed to the CAA and AAA, cell phone use accounts for 1.5% of all vehicle distractions and is last on the list of distractions cited in the report. This data would coincide with our own BC accidental death statistics from distracted driving, where out of the total of 80 or so deaths that are whole or partially attributed to distracted driving, only 1-2 on average has been attributed to use of “electronics/communications device” which is not limited to cell phones, but could be radio, GPS, media player, etc.

In a recent AAA study on distracted driving, we learn that while talking on a cell phone has 2x the cognitive impairment of changing a radio station, talking to a passenger has an insignificantly less impact (only 2.5% less cognitive workload) than as hands free cell phone, showing that passengers can be a major contributing factor to distraction due the cognitive impairment involved in conversations. Does this mean that passengers will be targeted next for their contribution to distracted driving? After all, if it is about saving lives, then wouldn’t this be the next logical extension of the distracted driving legislation?

Some have asked if it’s the fault of the police that we have this push and I have no proof of what their motives may be. All I can do is look at the facts that I’ve found and theorize the motives for their advocacy on this issue. Money definitely seems to come into play, but it’s not just police departments that I have found have benefited. When I find statistics which show departments such as the Victoria Police Department, which are relatively small in comparison to major metropolitan departments, received $2.33 million in traffic fine revenues in 2011, I have to ask myself if revenues are part of the consideration and why some government lobby groups such as the BC Association of Chiefs of Police are lobbying governments for more laws and increased fines? Or when I look at the 180 FTE (Full Time Equivalents) officers in BC that are assigned to the targeted traffic units, and the $25.5 million dollars per year that ICBC gives to the Ministry of Justice for the Targeted Enforcement Program, is there something else at play?

I know that police will say that they do not make the laws, they only enforce them, but when you are an elected official and you are getting lobbied (hard in many cases) by the Chiefs of Police asking for more tools or laws, why would you argue with them? They are the police, and shouldn’t they know what they are talking about? We are living in tough fiscal times, and many municipal departments have tight budgets, including the police. However, unlike other departments in a municipality, police are the only ones that can generate more revenues for themselves, by enforcing laws that generate fines that will come back to benefit them. The provincial government gives back all ticket fine revenues to municipalities. Do these laws  and conflict of interest not encourage them to advocate for more penalties for more behavior modification? It’s not unreasonable or something I would blame them for doing. We all want the best equipment and adequate manpower, and perhaps this is part of the funding formula success.  If it is not about the money, then lets look and returning all fine revenues to all the drivers who do NOT get a ticket, and see if enforcement remains at the same levels. Surely the good drivers deserve to be rewarded for their good behaviors?

Unfortunately, I think involving police in the less trivial matters in society such as some of the traffic enforcement they do is creating a bigger problem in general for police. I believe that this is contributing the PR problems that police are facing today, as instead of looking at police as protectors of public safety from the worst in society, they are looked by the public as armed tax collectors for the government. The result is we lose the respect which the law enforcement community needs and deserves for the very difficult job they do on a daily basis.

A study was done in California (which by population is about the same as Canada) after they enacted cell phone bans in 2008. The study was done to find out if creating such a law resulted in measurable declines in collisions, as just like here, the lawmakers were adamant that cell phone use was causing mayhem on the roads. The researchers found despite the new laws, the number of collisions statewide only dropped from 66.7 per day, to 65.2 per day state wide, and found that to be a statistically minor decline. The senior vice president for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) was quoted as saying…..”Cell phone use has become synonymous with distracted driving, but distracted driving did not become a problem with cell phone use. People do a lot of things behind the wheel that distracts them besides using cell phones”.

This is also apparently the case in BC as well. So could we be focusing our efforts better to result in better outcomes for all drivers?

ICBC and the government, are really the most interesting piece of this puzzle, especially in light of the recent article in the Times Colonist , where the ICBC spokesperson admitted that their conclusions on cell phone use in relation to collisions is “somewhat speculative:”

I’ve also learned that, similar to BC Hydro, ICBC is a money making machine for the provincial government. On average, ICBC is returning about $160 million annually to the provincial treasury.

I found an article from mid 2014 regarding the proposed 5.5% increase in ICBC basic rates, and the spokesperson blamed a 16% increase in rear end crashes in the past 5 years by citing that 60% of all rear end crashes were cause by distracted drivers who were talking or texting on cell phones (this is contrary to the TC story that says data not tracked, as well as my own inquires to ICBC). Coincidently, the 5.5% rate hike increase sought, represents about $236 million dollars, which according to ICBC was the amount that the provincial treasury requested from ICBC for 2013. Oddly, this was the BC budget year of an election, and that was the most money requested from ICBC since at least 2009.  See page 30 of the report about ICBC

When I looked at the statistics from ICBC for crash claims, I saw that crashes from 2008 to present are actually down 7%, despite population increases of about 1.1% per year, while cell phone subscriber use in Canada is up 24% since 2009. This of course did not match what the spin-doctors at ICBC were saying, and it appeared that the media were just copy and pasting press releases into their news stories.

So what I did was take a look at all of ICBC Annual Service Plans for the past 4 years to see if I could find where they were getting their statistics to support their claims that rear end collisions were driving up costs, or that cell phones were proving to be a major cost for the corporation. Clearly if they were seeking a rate increase due to unexpected losses, the information must show up in the reports. To my surprise, I could not find any information in any of the reports around this major problem for ICBC, at least not until the 2015 Service Plan (which coincides with the governments cell phone laws push this year).

Not only did the reports fail to mention cell phones or rear end collisions as problems, they all said that claims frequency was DOWN, and that what had been causing the increases in insurance costs was claim severity for bodily injury claims, especially for minor injuries, and an increase in pain and suffering awards. See page 20. In every annual report they explain that this is due to more lawyers being involved with ICBC claims and the severity (or cost of the claims) going up, and they claimed this trend being felt across the insurance industry. ICBC’s solution to counter this trend was training their staff to deal with claims faster, and to offer more fair settlements out of the gate to lower some of the claims costs and legal costs associated with longer open claims.
In the 2015 report, as in prior years, the report states that the FREQUENCY of bodily injury claims is being closely monitored, and that ICBC is assuming that it will resume a slight DOWNWARD trend after 3 YEARS OF TRENDING FLAT.  Again, totally contradicting every piece of public messaging we have been hearing from governments, police, and ICBC about how bad our driving is and how this is resulting in us having to pay more out of our pockets.

The following is an excerpt from the Ministry of Justice 2014/15 Annual Service Plan Report: “New driver intervention and improvement model to more effectively intervene with high-risk driving behaviours. Electronic ticketing, coupled with a faster dispute resolution process, will mean that driver infractions will be recorded against driving records more quickly, thereby enabling interventions for high-risk drivers to be applied soon after habitual high-risk driving”

What this means is more punitive laws and heavier fines, while at the same time moving away from a Judicial system to an Administrative Tribunal; whereas, as the defendant, you will need to provide your evidence to the tribunal prior to hearing, and the officer is not required to participate. This tips the scales of justice to favour the crown and is the inverse of English common law where you have the right to face your accuser and see the evidence against you. This is sure to lead to more arbitrary decisions being made, and police feeling more empowered to enforce laws as the tests for burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt have been removed.

We are being duped and it’s about the money.

So what I propose is going back to the drawing board on road safety and how we make our roads safer. We need to look at where we are allocating limited and valuable police resources in the province. We need to make long term planning based on real measureable data, and not emotion-based assumptions based on perceptions, and not make decisions based on revenue needs of government or their agencies.

Let’s look at investing the millions we spend on enforcement, and put that into early driver education programs with ongoing driver evaluations that teach people DEFENSIVE driving skills and good driving habits. Let’s not have society have unwarranted negative police contacts resulting in bad PR for our law enforcement, instead lets teach safer driving habits starting in schools, similar to the DARE programs. Let’s create some jobs through driver education and ongoing testing, and put the 180 FTE (Full Time Equivalent) officers that are dedicated solely to writing traffic tickets, back on the street, saving lives and protecting society from societies worst. Perhaps they could work the Highway of Tears, and other difficult cases which make people feel unsafe in their neighbourhoods. Perhaps this is a difficult sell to law enforcement and government, as solving people and property crimes is expensive. It’s not revenue positive like traffic enforcement, however we need to allocate the right resources to the right places at the right time, to do the right thing, as our resources are limited and precious.

We need to move away from the adversarial system of using resources to solve problems which are objectively less of a priority. We need to decide as a society, what is the acceptable risk in using a vehicle on a roadway. We know that accidents will NEVER be eliminated nor that fatalities will be eliminated (in spite of the BC government plan of Zero road deaths by 2020); so what numbers are acceptable numbers, and how much of our resources are we willing to invest to achieve those targets?

To do any less is to waste money and other valuable resources. As stated, the Road Safety BC target is zero traffic fatalities. Can we all agree that bureaucrats will waste unlimited amounts of taxpayer capital while attempting to achieve the unattainable? I would also ask the question, if after 5 years of a law, like the distracted driving law, it cannot be shown to have made a statistical difference in outcomes to collisions and deaths, then shouldn’t the government repeal the legislation as it is ineffective? Even ICBC and the governments own press releases admit there has been no proof of better outcomes. See pages 2, 4, 5

We need to stop the government using ICBC as their own personal piggy bank, while manipulating public policy issues like distracted driving as a rouse to keep the money flowing into the piggy bank…while blaming ordinary citizens for the costs. We need the governments to be honest with us. If it is money they need, then say “we need more money”. But quit fear mongering and playing shell games with the money. We are all grownups and we can handle the truth.

Derek Lewers is a married father of two, with over 25 years on the road, most of that as a career. He served his community as a volunteer firefighter for 13 years, achieving the rank of Lieutenant, and is certified many related proficiencies in the fire service. He has been a community volunteer in many projects, and enjoys working in the performing arts as a producer and in technical work. In recent years he has become politically active in his community. In his spare time, Derek enjoys both photography and research. Being a self proclaimed critical thinker, Derek prides himself in always looking at all sides of stories in the news, and when they do not seem to make sense, he enjoys uncovering the story behind the “news”. He does not have any political affiliation nor does he owe any political favors.

Comments

  1. Catherine

    November 11, 2015

    I appreciated your article. Thank you for putting things in perspective.

  2. Niles

    September 10, 2015

    All any average person reading your content is going to see is:
    “cellphones don’t cause accidents” and “because of the numbers, it’s safe to use”

    How about, instead of quoting the statistics about how cellphone usage is up and accident stats are down, making it clear – NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO BEHIND THE WHEEL, UNLESS YOU ARE FOCUSED ON DRIVING THE VEHICLE, YOU ARE DISTRACTED DRIVING!!!

    Your article is not going to change:
    1. the government cash cow (ICBC)
    2. People perception on using cell phones while driving
    3. changing social behavior while driving

    It’s going to do the exact opposite to making the roads safer, it’s going to promote more people using their cellphone while driving. NO AMOUNT OF STATISTICS is proof that ANYONE can drive and use a cellphone and do it in a safe manner, especially when they can only barely drive the vehicle!

    The lower mainland has to be one of the worst areas for driving in the modern world because of attitudes, social acceptance regarding driving and following rules!

    Just look at driving instructors! What is the point in having an “L” plate and an “N” plate systems for new drivers when the person who is supposed to be the teacher, instructor and mentor can’t even get a simple, basic rule right?? How many of them drive around with both plates on display when:
    1. they are driving themselves
    2. a student L driver is being mentored
    3. place both plates like they are advertising stickers

    It’s mind-blowing that an instructor can’t understand this basic concept. I guess the government missed the corruption with handling out licences with giving driving instructors licences to teach new drivers……………..

    • Ian

      September 24, 2015

      You could be right about the three points you feel the article won’t change. The objective was never to change behaviour, it was set out to point out bullshit.

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