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In the past decade, distraction-related crashes have been sharply rising, and cellphones are a major culprit. But getting drivers to put their devices down isn’t easy, and experts worry penalties aren’t enough – attitudes about technology and safety need to change

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On a Winnipeg street, Sergeant Rob Duttchen holds a phone with a picture of his late father, Art. Ten years ago, Art Duttchen was struck by an SUV in the suburban Arizona community where he lived. The driver was talking on her phone. Now, Sgt. Duttchen's mission is to warn motorists of the deadly consequences distracted driving can have.John Woods/The Globe and Mail

The triviality of the text messages is what has stuck with Rob Duttchen.

It was Aug. 15, 2009, when the Winnipeg police officer received a call from his mother, Carolee. His 62-year-old father, Art, had been hit by an SUV while walking their husky-cross in suburban Kingman, Ariz., where Art was a Lutheran pastor. The 16-year-old driver had been talking on the phone – after an extended bout of texting with her boyfriend about a sex-related bet the pair was considering – and allowed her oversized vehicle to drift across the road. She hit the dog, Hobo, first, then smashed into Art from behind, sending him flying.

While Art lay critically wounded – bleeding internally, his neck fractured – the girl made several more phone calls and sent numerous texts. About 15 minutes after the crash, she wrote: “i just dont want people feeling bad for me and stuff.”

Art died that night, leaving behind Carolee, their four children and a church community full of friends. As for the driver, she had her licence suspended until she turned 18, and a punishment Rob Duttchen describes as essentially "house arrest for two years.”

The senselessness of the conversation the girl was having still gets to him. “There was no reason to be driving and texting at the same time,” the police sergeant says.

In the wake of his father’s death, Sgt. Duttchen made it his mission to draw attention to distracted driving, which has emerged as one of the most dangerous and intractable road-safety issues Canada has ever faced. After a brief dip, crashes related to distracted driving jumped nearly 20 per cent from 2009 through 2010, according to Transport Canada, and have stayed consistently high – averaging nearly 85,000 annually – every year since. In Manitoba alone, there were 4,780 collisions related to distraction in 2012. By 2017, that had jumped to 15,403 – an increase of 222 per cent.

Distracted driving is broadly defined as performing any activity that might take your focus off the road – eating, fiddling with the radio, tapping co-ordinates into a GPS device. Particularly deadly is distraction related to a cellphone, which is designed to monopolize our attention. According to one widely cited study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, talking on a handheld phone while driving more than triples the risk of a collision. Texting increases it six-fold.

While the problem of distracted driving is one that’s immune to easy fixes, there are a host of ideas for how to reduce this deadly behaviour and minimize the harm it causes, everything from more punitive enforcement to rethinking how we build cars and roadways. Dr. Jay Winsten, whose public-health project at Harvard University aims to combat distracted driving, believes it will take a combination of both technological intervention and a generational shift in behaviour to get it under control. “The evolution of social norms is important, and I think young people can help lead the way on that,” he says.

As for Sgt. Duttchen, he is doing his part to change attitudes one driver at a time. If he catches someone using their phone while driving, they automatically get a ticket. But it’s different when the driver is using a phone at a red light. Although that’s also illegal, Sgt. Duttchen uses those instances to give drivers an uncomfortable warning about the possible outcome of their behaviour.

“I will tell them my father’s story and that it’s not worth the risk,” he says. “Because the issue isn’t just you. The issue is all the people around you.”

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Sgt. Duttchen gives out tickets automatically if he catches motorists using their phones while driving, and warnings if they use phones while stopped at red lights.John Woods/The Globe and Mail

The last time we faced a crisis of this magnitude on the roads was two generations ago, with impaired driving.

Although driving drunk was criminalized in Canada in 1969, the practice remained stubbornly widespread. During one four-month period in 1977, for instance, Ontario Provincial Police found that more than half the drivers they stopped for traffic violations had been drinking; some 30 per cent of them were charged with alcohol-related offences.

The tide eventually turned, but slowly. There was a 44-per-cent drop in alcohol-related incidents from 1978 to 1986. Progress was made through a combination of roadside sobriety programs such as RIDE (Reduce Impaired Driving Everywhere), which was launched across Ontario in 1977, tougher penalties and stricter enforcement of the law.

Possibly the biggest factor in getting drunk driving under control, however, was a dramatic change in public attitudes. The advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), created in California in 1980 and launched in Canada nine years later, helped put a human face to the issue. Police departments launched shaming campaigns, publishing the names of everyone charged with impaired-driving offences, which helped to further stigmatize the act.

The idea of the designated driver – a concept popularized in large part by Dr. Winsten – was a crucial part of the puzzle. The campaign roped in taxi companies, public transit organizations, bars and restaurants, and private individuals to prevent anyone from getting behind the wheel drunk. Dr. Winsten’s Harvard Alcohol Project also took its campaign to pop culture, leading to impaired driving being featured in the plot lines of 160 episodes of prime-time TV between 1988 and 1992.

A scene from a 1987 episode of Cheers features characters discussing the role of a designated driver. In the 1980s and 90s, several screenwriters agreed to add drunk-driving prevention messages to their programs thanks to the Harvard Alcohol Project.

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The Harvard project's leader, Dr. Jay Winsten, played a large role in popularizing the idea of a designated driver.Scott Eisen/The Globe and Mail

Gradually, public attitudes changed. What was once seen as a trivial crime, as long as the driver got home safely, became more socially unacceptable. But we’re not there yet with distracted driving. “You can comfortably talk publicly with strangers at a party about how, yeah, you’re one of the worst offenders around with distracted driving and you’ve got to change your behaviour,” Dr. Winsten says. “You wouldn’t say that any longer around drunk driving.”

Until cellphones started to become ubiquitous in the 1990s, Canada’s roads were on an improving safety trend – not just owing to a drop in impaired driving, but also thanks to stricter seatbelt laws, graduated licensing requirements and better-engineered vehicles. But a recent report from the Ottawa-based Traffic Injury Research Foundation shows that over the past 17 years, distracted-driving fatalities have made up an increasing proportion of the deaths on our roads. “In other words, the positive trend among non-distraction-related fatalities is not evident in the trend among distraction-related fatalities,” the report states.

Experts began raising concerns about the dangers of mixing cellphones and driving early on. But good data on the risks were hard to come by and legislators were slow to act. In 2003, Newfoundland and Labrador became the first province to enforce a ban on using handheld phones while driving.

Those laws have since spread across the country, but they’re difficult to enforce since drivers typically have to be caught in the act of talking or texting behind the wheel. Unlike with impaired driving, you can’t simply set up a RIDE-style checkpoint to determine who’s been using their phone recently. In the event of a crash, investigators need a warrant to access a driver’s phone records, even if an eyewitness confirms the person was using their device.

Charlie Klauer, an associate professor at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, knows firsthand how common this behaviour is. She sees it in her experiments and watched its prevalence explode. As part of her work, she outfits vehicles with cameras and sensors to study distracted driving in the real world. Prof. Klauer ran two studies – one from 2003–04 and another from 2006–07. “In the first study, people weren’t texting," she says. "Nobody texted – not a single person. And in the second study, everybody did it.”

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Crossing guard Krista Robson helps pedestrians at the intersection of Woodbine and Danforth avenues in Toronto. Canadian roads had generally been getting safer until the 1990s, when cellphone use became more common. Over the past 17 years, distracted driving fatalities have made up an increasingly large share of road deaths, according to a report from the Traffic Injury Research Foundation.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

The psychology of driving is complicated, which is one of the reasons distracted driving is such a difficult behaviour to stamp out.

The Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), for instance, points to surveys that show 95 per cent of drivers acknowledge it’s “very risky” to use their phones while driving. Yet, about one-third of drivers admit to doing just that at least once during their last 10 trips.

It turns out that people are notoriously bad judges of their own driving skills.

In one study, researchers at the University of Stockholm found that people had “a strong tendency…to believe themselves to be more skillful and less risky than the others.” This inflated belief in their own skills can intersect with distracted driving in dangerous ways. “For a portion of drivers, their ability to text message while driving might be one of the characteristics they believe makes them a unique and superior driver,” U.S. researchers wrote in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2014.

Experts say this is in part because the people who drive distracted usually don’t suffer any fallout. The Traffic Injury Research Foundation released a report in September showing that the perpetrator is not the most likely one to die in a crash. “Unlike alcohol-impaired drivers, distracted drivers more often kill other road users in crashes than kill themselves,” the report states.

In fact, distracted drivers might not even be aware they’ve had a close call – say, cutting off a cyclist or forcing a truck to veer into oncoming traffic – precisely because they’re not paying attention. And if they do realize what’s happened, they might interpret the safe ending as testament to their superior driving skill, instead of a warning to be more mindful.

All this can lead to the conclusion that distracted-driving laws are an excellent measure – for other people. A common attitude seems to be, “Yeah, great idea – that’ll keep all those other people safe. I’m good as it is,” says Dr. Ian Pike, director of the BC Injury Research and Prevention Unit. “Because the prevailing attitude is that injury won’t happen to them. ‘I’ve done this a million times before and I got away with it, and I will likely continue to get away with it’ – until they don’t.”

The truth is, people are terrible at multitasking. Rather than juggling two or three actions at once, people are actually dividing their attention, flicking from one thing to the next, often not very effectively.

In a famous experiment from the late 1990s, people were asked to watch a video and count how many times actors in white shirts passed a basketball. In the middle of the video, a woman in a gorilla suit strolls though the action, pausing to beat her chest. Asked later about the costumed actor, half of the test subjects admitted they hadn’t seen the gorilla.

This video, used in a Harvard University experiment by researchers Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, tests participants' ability to see a person in a gorilla suit while their attention is focused on actors passing a basketball.

This is a phenomenon known as inattentional blindness. When mentally focused on one thing, we can miss something else right in front of us – such as a child chasing a ball in the street or a car nosing unexpectedly out of an alley. This has been seen in driving simulators: people talking on the phone were asked to count fast-food signs out the window and couldn’t fulfill that simple request.

We know instinctively this lack of attention can have lethal results, but thanks to human overconfidence, many of us believe we can manage the risk. Besides, our phones and the apps installed on them have become so alluring we sometimes feel we can’t help ourselves.

Prof. Klauer has seen how quickly people’s best intentions can fade. Even though they knew they were being watched, participants in her experiments took just a couple of hours to revert to their old habits. “They’re in their own car, in their own environment,” she says. “We all have our normal stuff we do when we drive.”

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A metal barrier separates traffic on a Winnipeg road. Manitoba currently has some of Canada's toughest distracted-driving penalties: Using an electronic device while driving is punishable by an automatic three-day licence suspension on the first offence, and seven days on the second.John Woods/The Globe and Mail

Penalties for distracted driving are a patchwork across the country. In New Brunswick, it’s a $200 fine for a first offence. In Prince Edward Island, it’s as high as $1,275. In Nunavut, which banned texting and driving only this year, there is no penalty at all.

In the face of worsening distracted-driving statistics, a number of jurisdictions have brought in harsher penalties. Some of the toughest are in Manitoba, which last year introduced the country’s first automatic three-day licence suspension for anyone caught using an electronic device behind the wheel, with a seven-day suspension for second offence. The stricter regime was accompanied by an education campaign encouraging people to put down their phones and for passengers to speak up when drivers break the law. “The point isn’t to make life awful for people; the point is to make it really clear that this behaviour has serious consequences,” says Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler. A three-day licence suspension might not be much of a deterrent in, say, Florida or Arizona, he adds, but waiting for the bus in the depths of a prairie winter can be “a real cold experience.”

Mr. Schuler admits it will take at least a year, or possibly several, before they know whether the new approach is working. But early signs pointed to the difficulty in changing ingrained behaviour: Barely two months after the new penalties came into effect, police nabbed their first repeat offender.

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Manitoba's strict distracted-driving laws are meant to 'make it really clear that this behaviour has serious consequences,' Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler says.Steve Lambert/The Canadian Press

There’s some suggestion, though, that simply increasing penalties doesn’t work. If someone is willing to risk a $300 charge, will raising that fine to $600 suddenly act as a deterrent? It’s not clear it will. “If you increase your fines to such a point, your concern always becomes, will police lay the ticket?” adds Graham Miner, director of highway safety in PEI. “I could write you a ticket for $100 for using a cellphone, but if it’s $2,000 and it means you’re going to lose your licence, will I write that ticket?”

In British Columbia, where collisions are up 25 per cent since 2014, Attorney-General David Eby has floated some ideas that move beyond suspensions and fines. Last year, he proposed the idea of invalidating some insurance benefits for people convicted of distracted driving. This is now done with those convicted of impaired driving, who are considered in breach of their insurance policy and on the hook for lawsuit settlements, medical expenses and vehicle repairs. A spokesman for the minister would only say that the idea is not part of the province’s current approach to distracted driving.

Enforcement can go only so far, though. Because enforcement is intermittent and the practice so widespread, the chances of being caught remain slim. So even though penalties will always be part of the solution to distracted driving, other approaches could play a useful role. “Distracted driving will challenge us in ways that traditional road safety interventions have not,” says Robyn Robertson, president of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation. “Everyone’s looking for the intervention that’ll tackle the issue. It’s not going to be one thing.”

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A driving simulator at the University of Minnesota's HumanFIRST Laboratory uses eye-tracking to see how motorists pay attention. Increasingly, safety experts and some auto makers are exploring how technology can monitor drivers' distracted behaviour and prevent it.Michael McCarthy/Center for Transportation Studies

Let’s face it: driving can get boring. That idea is central to a new distracted-driving campaign set to launch in April. The effort is being led by Dr. Winsten and his team at Harvard, and it’s rooted in the notion that simply asking motorists to keep their eyes on the road isn’t enough. They need to be actively engaged and looking around. This reflects the old rule of thumb that drivers should be checking their mirrors every five to seven seconds, a practice not universally followed.

“The campaign will stress that the practice of attentive driving involves more than avoiding distractions or passively gazing at the road ahead; it requires active, systematic engagement in the driving task to maintain ‘situational awareness,’” according to a draft description of the campaign. The point isn’t just that drivers need to be more aware of impending dangers. It’s also about engaging their minds that little bit more, making them less likely to reach for their phones.

Technology might help too. Nichole Morris, a research scholar at the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota, says her team has studied the effects of forward-collision warning systems and in-vehicle messages that alert drivers if they get too close to the car in front of them. The researchers hypothesized these systems would leave drivers more susceptible to distraction. But they found the opposite. “If we can provide some driving-relevant information to increase their mental load, just ever so slightly, you can help eat up some of that additional attention that people feel like they need to do something with,” Prof. Morris says. “If it’s deployed really thoughtfully and carefully, we can actually load them up just enough so that they don’t pick up their phone.”

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Nichole Morris of the University of Minnesota has researched ways to give drivers automatic warnings to lighten the mental burden of navigating road hazards.Handout

Tech assistance could also come in the form of telematics – a sort of automotive black box that tracks hard braking and other actions that might indicate distraction. The payoff for drivers could come in the form of a break on their insuarance rates. The ICBC ran a telematics pilot last year that showed a 40-per-cent improvement in driver actions. Another such project, still underway, is geared toward tracking the behaviour of inexperienced drivers, who the ICBC says are 5.6-times more likely than 20-year veterans to be in a crash. If the insurer sees an uptick in safe driving, it could roll-out the system more widely.

A more drastic, even slightly sci-fi form of tech assistance is being planned by Volvo. Starting in 2020, the Swedish automaker will offer optional on-board cameras that monitor drivers’ eye movements, watching for signs associated with both impairment and distraction. If a driver closes her eyes or looks away from the road for too long, a Volvo employee would call the vehicle to check in on the driver. In extreme cases, the car would slow itself to a stop.

There are also technological fixes on the smartphone side of things. Newer Apple iPhones, for instance, offer an optional “do not disturb” feature for drivers that blocks notifications while the car is on the move. So far, these features have seen limited uptake by users, and phone makers have resisted automatic notification blockers, arguing the technology isn’t perfect and could inconvenience passengers and those using public transit. Consumers have also pushed back at this concept, too reliant on their smartphones to imagine being disconnected.

Neil Arason, the author of No Accident: Eliminating Injury and Death on Canadian Roads, says tactics to minimize distracted driving are worthwhile, but that a bit of realism is needed as well. Some drivers will always be willing to risk looking at their phones. Knowing this, it’s incumbent on society to build a safer road network. That could mean installing median barriers on roads to prevent drivers from drifting into oncoming lanes, and using radar speed cameras to slow motorists down and reduce the damage resulting from crashes.

For Todd Litman, head of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent research organization, there needs to be a greater focus on giving people alternatives to driving. With fully reliable and ubiquitous autonomous vehicles still years or decades off, the only way to do it, he argues, is to improve public transit options and position it deliberately as the choice for people who want screen time. That way, even if the trip takes longer, the time can be used productively.

“We can shake bigger fingers, we can be louder in our anti-distracted-driving campaigns,” Mr. Litman says. “Or we can be realistic and give travellers solutions that actually respond to their demands.”

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Todd Litman, chief of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in B.C.'s capital, suggests that commuters should have better public transit options that allow the use of screen time en route.Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

However, most of these initiatives, whether public-awareness campaigns or changes to driving infrastructure, could take years to have a measurable effect on deaths and injuries owing to distracted driving. And if you talk to some of the people most directly affected by the issue, you’ll hear tones of weary resignation.

One B.C. man, whose wife was killed by a driver who had been drinking and was texting his ex-girlfriend at the time of the crash, is furious that nothing seems to change on the roads – even among his own circle.

“My friends do the same thing, even after [my wife] died and they were at her funeral,” says the widower, who is still struggling with the fallout of her death and was granted anonymity because he didn’t want national media attention. He has even caught himself instinctively grabbing for the phone when a call comes in from the seniors’ home where his mother is a resident. “That [phone] buzzer is just like Pavlov’s dog,” he says. “If people dying won’t change your mind, nothing’s going to change your mind.”

But in Winnipeg, Sgt. Duttchen hasn’t give up hope and he’s confident he’s making a difference. “If we can change the behaviour of one person at a time, our mission is accomplished,” he says. “Because you don’t know the compounding effect of that. You don’t know what you’ve prevented.”

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Sgt. Duttchen has hope that distracted drivers can be persuaded to change their ways.John Woods/The Globe and Mail

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