Canadian drivers continue to have their heads buried in the sand regarding the issue of distracted driving. While it is widely acknowledged to contribute to 20 to 30 per cent of all crashes, it is similarly believed to be mainly due to cellphone use. But that is not the case and this lack of awareness is cause for concern.
The most recent survey on the topic by the Traffic Injury Research Association – the results of which were announced last week – indicates the majority of Canadians “continue to mainly associate distracted driving with cellphone use while continuing to engage in other distracting behaviours.”
The first thing that came to mind for more than 72 per cent of the respondents, when distracted driving was mentioned, was cellphones. It was a long way to the remaining top five perceived distractions: eating and drinking was mentioned by 4 per cent, passengers by 3.4 per cent other drivers by 2.9 per cent and changing radio stations by 2.8 per cent.
To the TIRF researchers, this giant gap is a major problem in that it shows most Canadians are unaware of the number and types of distractions.
“Distraction is a diversion of the driver’s attention from the driving task,” explains Robyn Robertson, lead researcher and president and CEO at TIRF. “This issue is much broader than just cellphones and includes distractions inside the vehicle such as eating, drinking, smoking, as well as distractions outside the vehicle such as looking at billboards, other drivers and scenery along the road.”
While only one-fifth of the respondents admitted to using a cellphones or other devices while driving, most admitted to other distracted behaviours.
The survey asked respondents how often they engaged in distracting activities, indicating a disturbing lack of awareness that they are putting themselves, their passengers and other road users in danger.
More than 86 per cent said they frequently read road signs; 67 per cent say they regularly talk to other occupants in the vehicle and 55 per cent admit to thinking of other things while driving. Changing stations or CDs is a frequent occurrence for 46 per cents and reading billboards or ads for 31 per cent. Almost one in five admits to talking on a hands-free phone and more than 17 per cent to using a GPS. Yet those were not seen as distracted behaviour by the vast majority!
There has been extensive coverage in the media on the issue of hands-free phones. Most jurisdictions permit it while making use of a hand-held phone illegal. In the study, TIRF uncovered a strong relationship between levels of concern and self reported behaviour. Those drivers most likely to talk on a hands-free phone or text on a phone are likely to have a low level of concern about the practices. In other words, they don’t see it as an issue. That would indicate the need for more effective communication on the subject.
In addressing the misconception that these other activities are not distracting, Robertson says, “In reality, people cannot multi-task.
“While we may think that we’re multi-tasking our brains are actually switching back and forth between tasks, and the more we jump from one task to the other, the less we focus on each individual task.”
He says this lack of attention can result in slower reactions and driving errors that can lead to near misses and crashes.
More than 1,600 Canadian drivers responded to the survey, which was funded by Transport Canada and the Brewers Association of Canada. TIRF, established in 1964, is a national, independent, charitable road safety organization formed to design, promote and implement effective programs and policies, based on sound research.
Halifax-based Richard Russell runs a driving school