Across B.C., police are using Valentine’s Day this week to remind drivers to avoid texting while behind the wheel – with a touching message about getting people safely home to their loved ones. It is part of the annual crackdown on distracted driving – and by March, enforcement levels will likely return to normal.
Following the trend in other North American jurisdictions, distracted driving eclipsed impaired driving as the second-leading factor in fatal crashes in 2012 in British Columbia. On average, 91 people are killed each year in B.C. due to driver distractions.
But the penalties for fiddling with electronic devices while driving are less severe than those for drinking and driving. Enforcement rates for distracted driving also have remained static over the past three years.
B.C. police chiefs are pushing for harsher penalties for drivers who use cellphones behind the wheel. They have proposed doubling the fines and giving police the power to seize the phones of offenders.
But the province doesn’t seem interested in change.
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton did not respond to interview requests. Her staff instead provided a written statement from Sam MacLeod, Superintendent of Motor Vehicles, who also would not do an interview.
“It will take time for people to realize the danger they pose to themselves and other road users when they drive distracted,” Mr. MacLeod’s statement reads.
“We have to work with what we’re given,” said Corporal Robert McDonald of the RCMP’s E Division Traffic Services. His frustration is clear when he described standing at the side of the road in his bright yellow police jacket while drivers are so absorbed in their phones, they don’t see him trying to wave them down.
“I’ve had to tap on their window to get their attention,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to get through that it’s illegal.”
The B.C. government outlawed the use of electronic devices while driving in February of 2010. For each of the past two years, about 48,000 drivers have been ticketed for distracted driving involving an electronic device.
“Everybody does it. There is so much of it, you can’t say one generation does it more than another,” said Cpl. McDonald. “Especially at intersections, anywhere in the province at the red light, you’ll find someone checking their electronic devices.”
In 2012, distracted driving was the main cause in 30 per cent of fatal crashes. Impaired driving was blamed for 22 per cent of those deadly crashes. (Speed still tops the list of deadly driving habits.)
In the absence of tougher penalties, police are trying to find new ways to drive home the message. Victoria police are riding public buses this month, using their higher vantage point to spot scofflaws. The RCMP will look for the toughest penalty possible – which often isn’t the distracted driving law. If they can, they will ticket for “driving without due care and attention” which provides for more costly penalties and double the number of penalty points against their driver’s licence.
“Whatever is there for me to work with, that’s what I’m going to use,” Cpl. McDonald said.
Steve Wallace, owner of the Wallace Driving School on Vancouver Island, said the current penalties are not tough enough to change driver behaviour, and driver education has to improve as well.
“You cannot multitask. Your brain will not do two things at once,” Mr. Wallace said. But people have become so attached to their devices, it will take tougher medicine to get them to detach.
“We have something that is culturally tied to our umbilical cord,” he said. His driving instructors routinely confiscate cellphones from students when they go to take a driver’s test. The rest of the time, he advises drivers to keep temptation at bay: “Put it in the back seat, put it the trunk.”