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The Globe and Mail

Keep your eyes on the road. That’s rule one when it comes to driving. Scan the road. Look far ahead. Do not look down. Simple, right?

Apparently not.

A new Ipsos survey commissioned by the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia found 42 per cent of B.C. drivers admit to being distracted by their phones while driving. These motorists use their phones at least once out of every ten trips. That is up from 25 per cent in 2014.

They do this despite knowing it is a dangerous and stupid habit. Ninety-three per cent of those surveyed believe that texting while driving is risky, while 84 per cent think talking on the phone is dangerous. Facts back up their perceptions. In B.C., 25 per cent of fatal crashes are caused by distracted driving, which makes the habit the second leading contributing factor in traffic fatalities.

Is there something wrong with British Columbians? You might think so after viewing video of drivers in Langley trying to navigate a new one-lane roundabout. The footage was shot by local radio host Chris Wiggins, who shared it on TikTok. It shows near misses and abject confusion.

Though it might be nice for the rest of the country to believe distracted driving is a western trend, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s provincial, it’s national, it’s global. Human beings love their mobile devices – their little electronic masters – and that ardour does not wane when they get in the driver’s seat. Distracted driving was depressing when it was first identified as a dangerous practice during the age of the flip-phone, but at least we could say, “No one knew.”

Today everyone knows and still so many go right ahead. The statistics are troubling. According to Transport Canada, 1,745 Canadians died in traffic accidents in 2020. Distraction was a factor in 22 per cent of those fatalities. Impaired driving was a factor in 17 per cent (down from 27 per cent in 2018).

Why do we engage in a habit we know is dangerous? People abuse drugs, tobacco and alcohol, but they get a chemical pay-off (although a costly one). What’s the pay-off for distracted driving? Posting an awesome Tweet? While it’s hard to pinpoint, the allure is powerful and potent. Human Factors of Visual and Cognitive Performance in Driving, a 2008 book edited by Candida Castro, found that “human error is involved in more than 90 per cent of traffic accidents and, of those accidents, most are associated with visual distracted, or looking-but-failing-to-see errors.”

When considering distracted driving, it’s important to be specific. No driver can be 100 per cent free from distraction. Distractions can be minimal and have no effect on the driver’s attention. Distractions can be so severe they cripple the ability to drive safely.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) categorizes three types of driver distraction:

  • Visually distracting: Tasks that require the driver to look away from the road to visually obtain information.
  • Manually distracting: Tasks that require the driver to take a hand off the steering wheel and manipulate a device or object.
  • Cognitively distracting: Tasks that require the driver to think about something other than driving.

Cognitive distraction is perennial. People daydream, their minds wander, they become engrossed in thought. Human beings have done this on foot, on horseback and in carriages, now they do it in automobiles. Drivers can be distracted by an external source – a chatty passenger, whining kid in the back seat or someone on the street. None of these things was created with the expressed purpose of holding attention. A good-looking passerby may distract a driver, but they weren’t created in a factory to do so (at least not yet).

The same cannot be said of mobile devices which incorporate all three categories of distraction. Millions of hours and a multitude of brilliant minds have gone into their creation. Like a narcotic designed to addict, mobile phones are designed to make it near impossible to put them down. That’s one reason 42 per cent of British Columbians admit to cellphone-induced distracted driving.

Car companies are trying to find ways to allow for connectivity, but reduce distraction. So far, they have not succeeded. Technology can be distracting by default; when in-car radios were introduced, many believed they were a dangerous distracting innovation.

That leaves the onus on drivers.

Ask most people if they would drive drunk and they will give you an emphatic no. This wasn’t always the case; if you asked a driver in 1985 if they would drive drunk, they’d probably have answered, “Why wouldn’t I?” It took public awareness and personal responsibility to lessen this scourge.

Drivers need to accept that just because you drove distracted today and nothing terrible happened doesn’t mean it won’t happen tomorrow. That’s the lethal lullaby that distracted driving sings. Everything is okay, until one second it isn’t – and then the consequences of that second are permanent.

So, keep your head up, your hands on the wheel and your phone in your pocket.

Don’t even start me on those gigantic in-car screens. That’s a whole other story.

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