Last week, Attorney General David Eby announced that one plan to help ease the financial woes at ICBC would be increasing public awareness of the dangers of distracted driving, which has now surpassed impaired driving as the second most common cause of death on B.C. highway (speed remains the number one killer).
Despite tougher penalties, more police enforcement, and continued public education, an average of 78 people per year do not make it home to their families because of distracted and inattentive drivers. In contrast, an average of 66 people are killed each year due to impaired driving. Distraction and driver inattention contributes to more than one-quarter of all car crash deaths.
ICBC has launched a new campaign to warn about the dangers of distracted driving, and police across the province will be ramping up distracted driving enforcement throughout September. Last week The Journal spoke with Mark Milner, road safety program manager for ICBC, about the dangers of, and misconceptions about, using a device while driving, as well as ways to keep connected while keeping safe.
“While the majority of drivers do realize the risk involved with using their handheld devices behind the wheel, there are still 38 per cent of them—four in ten—continue to use their devices once out of every ten trips,” notes Milner.
He says police will really be focussing their attention on distracted driving, and that people who continue to use their handheld devices while driving can expect to receive some attention from the police. “If the police do find you with your phone in your hand while you’re in traffic, that will result in a ticket for $368 and four driver penalty points. Those penalty points will result in an invoice of at least $175 depending on how many driver penalty points you have waiting for you when the system scans your driving record.”
He notes that “an awful lot of people” are under the misconception that they can use their handheld device if they are stopped at a red light, are in slow-moving traffic, or are on a quiet road with little traffic. “The law in B.C. is that if you are in traffic, and not pulled over and parked somewhere, that phone can’t be in your hand. Police will be enforcing that throughout the month.”
Milner says this is only one of the misconceptions people have about using handheld devices while driving. Another one is people thinking that an “emergency call” is whatever is urgent for them.
“Police have told us that they’ve heard people say ‘This was an emergency call; I had to notify my wedding planner of something’ or ‘I had to let my babysitter know I was going to be late’. These things are not emergencies.”
Milner says that the only emergency call drivers are permitted to use their handheld device for while driving are calls to 9-1-1.
He adds that many people are also unaware that rules about using devices are different for those still in the graduated licencing program (drivers with either an “L” or “N” designation). Those drivers cannot use their phones while they are driving even if they are hands-free.
Under rules introduced last year, any graduated licencing driver who is caught using a device while driving will—in addition to the fine and penalty points—immediately have their driver’s record reviewed by the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles, who will most likely suspend the licence. Fully licenced drivers will find their record reviewed if they receive two distracted driving tickets in one year.
“The penalties are very, very severe in British Columbia. Police are focussing their attention on this issue in September. They do enforce this year-round, but they’re really focussed on it this month. It’s not a good time to check the time or anything like that [on your device].”
Speaking of checking the time—which police say is a common excuse drivers use for checking their phone while driving—Milner acknowledges that almost every vehicle on the road today has a clock. If they don’t, he says, “There are these really fancy devices called wristwatches that you can use as well.”
He notes that drivers not in the graduated licencing program have the option of mounting their device on the dashboard. “Anything that only takes one touch to execute, you can do. If you don’t want to buy a watch and want to be able to check the time and your car doesn’t have a clock in it, that’s an option for you as well.
“Also, for fully-licenced drivers, using your device hands-free is a legal option for you. It’s not as safe as not using your device at all, but it’s safer than using your device handheld.” Another option for a lot of people is the use of Bluetooth technology.
“A lot of people conduct their business while they’re driving. It’s not the best option from our perspective, but one of the legal things they can do is install a Bluetooth system in their car. It’s often cheaper than one of the tickets. And it’s certainly a better option than getting two of the tickets and losing your licence for up to a year.”
In his announcement last week, Eby said that ICBC would be moving forward with a pilot project to evaluate distracted driving reduction technology. Milner says that they have been looking at technology to help with distracted driving for some time. “We issued a Request for Information back in April, and received submissions from about a dozen companies from across Canada and around the world. We’ve been looking at the information we’ve received from them and we’ve also conducted some additional research.
“We’re going to be looking at all of that and determining what are the most promising technologies and what are the most promising ways to deploy them, and looking at probably piloting something to determine what is the best way to use technology to thwart technology.”
If there’s one thing Milner wants people to take away from this campaign, it’s that when they’re driving, they need to take a break from their phone; something easier said than done for a lot of people. He says that although handheld, portable communication devices have been around for many years, it’s only since the advent of the smartphone 10 years ago that distracted driving has become a major issue.
“Prior to that we had Blackberries and flip-phones, but they weren’t something people commonly used in their vehicles. People used to have to pull over and go and find a payphone if they wanted to talk to someone. There was no texting, no Facebook, no Snapchat. These things didn’t used to exist, and we got along fairly well without them. None of this is worth risking your life, or another person’s life, when you’re behind the wheel.
“The only job that you have when you’re behind the wheel is driving.”