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Is the number of deaths caused by distracted driving going down? By now, everybody must know how dangerous distracted driving is, don’t they? I still see people mesmerized by their phones and fiddling with lattes – they just seem to be a little sneakier about it than they used to be. – Kim, Toronto

Despite education campaigns and tougher penalties, distracted driving still counts for nearly one in four fatal crashes on Canadian roads.

“It doesn’t seem to be going down,” said Robyn Robertson, president and CEO of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF). “Generally, it’s still about 25 per cent of fatals.”

How many people die from distracted driving? According to the National Collision Database, which shows crashes reported by the 13 provinces and territories, there were 310 deaths and 32,213 injuries involving a distracted driver in 2016, the most recent year with available data.

In 2015, there were 311 deaths and 31,923 injuries. For the seven years from 2010 to 2016, the numbers vary – with a high of 346 in 2012, a low of 273 in 2013 and an overall average of 314.

Those are deaths in crashes where the driver wasn’t paying attention for any reason – not just because of a cellphone. And the actual number might be even higher; it’s not always easy to tell whether distraction caused a crash.

“It’s not like with speeding where you either are or you aren’t,” Robertson said. “There are things like daydreaming where people drive from one place to another and don’t recall how they get there – you can’t really quantify that.”

According to preliminary numbers, there were 104 deaths in Ontario in 2016. That’s an increase of more than 30 per cent from 2011, when there were 72, Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO) said.

For 2011 to 2016, the peak was in 2014, with 109 deaths.

Increases could possibly be explained, at least partly, by more police forces reporting distracted driving as a cause of crashes, Robertson said.

“When there’s an increase, part of it’s a real increase and part of it’s because we’re doing a better job,” Robertson said.

Penalties getting harsher

Ontario’s distracted driving law – section 78.1 of the Highway Traffic Act (HTA) – only applies to drivers using hand-held electronic devices.

We were only able to immediately get numbers for charges under the section since 2015. They’ve been going down, from 62,798 in 2015 to 51,210 in 2016 and 46,371 in 2017.

But that doesn’t mean drivers are less distracted.

“People are getting sneaky, but we still have a substantial number of collisions that are caused by distraction,” said Const. Clint Stibbe of the Toronto police’s traffic services. “Using a device is only a portion of that.”

If you do something else that distracts you and hurts your driving – like eating at the wheel, scrolling through touch screen menus to change the radio station or digging through a bag – you could be charged with careless driving under the section 130 of HTA or dangerous operation of a motor vehicle under the Criminal Code of Canada.

In January, the minimum fine for using an electronic device while driving is going up to between $500 and $1,000, from between $400 and $1,000. The set fine has not been decided yet.

The changes will make Ontario the first province with an automatic licence suspension for everyone convicted – with three days on the first conviction, seven days on the second and 30 days on the third.

Manitoba has proposed similar automatic licence suspensions for distracted drivers.

Quebec toughened its penalties on July 1. Drivers now face a $300 to $600 fine and five demerits, up from an $80 to $100 fine and four demerits.

After the first conviction, any repeat offenders will automatically face escalating suspensions: three, seven and then 30 days.

In a Canadian Automobile Association survey in November, 83 per cent of respondents said they believe texting while driving is a bigger problem now than it was three years ago.

But while most of us worry about texting drivers, we tend to forget that anything that takes your attention away from the road – whether it’s struggling with Siri over misunderstood directions, wrangling a pet on your lap or breaking up an argument between your kids in the back – can be deadly.

“Basically, if you’re doing anything other than driving, you’re distracted,” Stibbe said.

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