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Is Distracted Driving the New Drunk Driving?

Woman driving on phone

Konrad Bongard, freelance columnist for Pardon Applications of Canada, explores the recent phenomena of distracted driving, and suggests that Canada may want to invest more energy into the education and enforcement of distracted driving offenders.

Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan once said…  “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror.”  Is it possible that Canada is doing the same thing with its driving laws?

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Last year, Peter MacKay expressed that he was considering changing Canada’s drinking and driving laws to allow for “Random Breathalyzer Tests” (RBT). This measure has been considered for before.  Rob Nicholson floated the idea a few years ago, as justice minister.  But it’s controversial — owing to the fact that it may violate Sections 8 and 9 of the Charter of Rights, which protect against unreasonable search and seizure and arbitrary detention (all rights in Canada are subject to a statute of “reasonable limitation”; however, the courts would have to make the call as to whether RBT fits the bill).

RBT’s, however, may not be worth the fight.

A 2001 review of the scientific literature by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which examined 23 papers spanning from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, found “no evidence that their effectiveness for reducing alcohol-related crashes differed” from regular checkpoints.

Experts are similarly divided on whether it would make sense for Ottawa to lower the Blood Alcohol Limit to 0.05 (most provinces already penalize drivers for having BAC rates between 0.05-0.08). This is because it is not clear that drivers in the 0.05-0.08 BAC range really pose a serious danger. A recent study, for instance, found that 81.5 per cent of fatally injured drunk drivers in Canada have BACs over 0.08 per cent, and that most in that group were driving with at least double the legal limit. Moreover, the implementation of more severe penalties for low BAC is costly — it causes insurance premiums to skyrocket, hurts the bar industry, and has a disproportionately negative effect on non-urban areas, where rates of drinking and driving are typically higher.

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To be sure, drinking and driving remains a stubborn problem.  As many as 1,500 people a year in Canada die from alcohol-related accidents. But given the fact that neither lowering the BAC nor implementing random breathalyzer tests is likely to substantially curb this figure — indeed, even in the face of stricter measures, police-reported impaired driving rates have not decreased since 2006 — is it possible that we should be looking elsewhere if we want to create safer roads?

Last year in Ontario alone, according to the OPP, 78 people were killed in distracted driving collisions, compared to just 57 impaired deaths.

Meanwhile, a roadside study conducted by Allstate Canada found that 20 per cent of drivers at major intersections across the province could be seen texting or talking on their cellphones.  And, according to the Canadian Automobile Association claims, texting drivers are 23 times more likely to be in an accident than a driver who’s paying attention to the road.

As many as 1,500 people a year in Canada die from alcohol-related accidents. But given the fact that neither lowering the BAC nor implementing random breathalyzer tests is likely to substantially curb this figure… is it possible that we should be looking elsewhere if we want to create safer roads?”

Predictably, young drivers are more at risk of this behaviour, with drivers under 25 being two to three times as likely to text or makes calls while on the road. But all of this raises the question: given that the campaign to end drinking and driving appears to have stalled out, shouldn’t we as a nation begin investing more energy in combating distracted driving?

At present — and in spite of legal sanctions existing across the country — a laissez-faire prevails towards distracted driving (by contrast, a 2008 Road Safety Monitor study found Canadians to be more concerned with impaired driving than global warming!).  But if the public were sufficiently mobilized, it is possible that, in five or ten years, rates of distracted driving (and consequently deaths) could significantly decline.

There’s also the possibility that new technological developments could be utilized in the fight against distracted driving. In 2008, Apple patented a lock-out device that prevents a phone from operating when it is in a moving car.

But whether the solution is technological, legislative, or both, hopefully our zeal for combating drinking and driving won’t distract us from fighting distracted driving.

Konrad Bongard is a freelance columnist for Pardon Applications of Canada, the nationwide processing firm for Canadian Pardon (Record Suspension) & U.S. Entry Waiver applications.  The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Pardon Applications of Canada.  For a list of statistical references used in this article, or more information on Pardon Applications of Canada, call 866-383-9744 or email info@pardonapplications.ca.