At this point, I hope most people realize that it’s illegal to physically text on their phones while driving, but are there things we do with our phones and infotainment systems that are more dangerous than we realize? I have friends who would never type a text on their phone any more because they don’t want a ticket. But they have no problem monkeying with GPS or digging around in a playlist while they’re driving. – Claudette, Ottawa
When it comes to distraction on the road, most of us haven’t gotten the right message.
“The message to literally not text and drive has penetrated most people, but most of us have transitioned to something more dangerous,” said Ian Jack, vice president of public affairs with the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA). “We’ll quickly check social media or play with playlists – it takes your eyes and your thoughts off the road.”
Whether you’re fiddling with Spotify, putting an address into your GPS or dictating a text to Siri, taking your attention off the road is the most dangerous thing you can do while driving, Jack said.
Across Canada, about one in four fatal crashes are caused by distracted driving, said the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF).
On Ontario roads patrolled by Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), there were nearly 6,200 crashes caused by driver distraction last year. Although the number of fatalities was not released for same time period, previous numbers show that there were 719 deaths caused by inattentive driving in the 10 years from 2011 to 2020.
That number is higher than deaths caused by speed (679), alcohol and drugs (615), and not wearing a seat belt (565).
Why are distractions so deadly?
If you’re driving at 100 km/h, you travel about 28 metres a second. If you have your eyes off the road for just five seconds, you can travel the length of a football field.
“A lot can change in two seconds or five seconds or seven seconds,” Jack said. “You shouldn’t ever be looking at your phone or at a screen – it’s not that important if you can’t stand the song that’s playing.”
In most provinces, distracted driving laws ban holding or touching a hand-held electronic device. But most of those laws don’t cover other kinds of distractions, including accessing your phone through your car’s infotainment system.
Hands-free not a safety feature
Even if you’re looking at the road and not touching your phone, you can still be distracted by the tech in your vehicle.
“Even if you’re talking hands-free, it reduces your visibility,” said Mark Andrews, a traffic consultant and former OPP traffic inspector. “The amount of items you can pick up in your peripheral vision shrinks to almost 70 per cent.”
In most new vehicles, tech is getting increasingly complicated. You may have to scroll through multiple touch screen menus just to change a radio station or turn off the heated seats.
“It’s getting worse,” Andrews said. “None of this is safe, regardless of your driving skill. You don’t trust everybody else who’s on the road with you, so why would you put your life in their hands by not paying attention to driving?”
Gadgets aren’t the only dangerous distractions. Reaching for a cup of coffee in the cupholder or yelling at squabbling kids in the back seat can take your focus off the road.
“Really, all these things are distractions,” CAA’s Jack said. “Try to be aware of them and avoid the ones you can – then you’ll have more brainpower to deal with your baby in the back seat.”
Even if you get rid of every distraction inside the car, you might still have plenty of distractions inside your head.
“Probably the most dangerous thing to do on the road is being lost in thought,” said Angelo DiCicco, special project manager with the Ontario Safety League. “It’s worse than texting and driving because you’ve lost situational awareness.”
If you’re preoccupied by the lousy day you just had at work, for instance, you might drive home without really paying attention to what’s happening on the road.
“It happens to all of us,” DiCicco said. “Maybe you missed your exit or you find yourself at home but you don’t remember getting off [Highway] 401.”
You may be staring straight ahead at the road, but you might not actually notice what’s happening. So, for instance, you may not see a child chasing a ball into the street until it’s too late.
That cognitive distraction is something every driver needs to be aware of, Andrews said.
“We go on autopilot because we’re emotionally compromised,” Andrews said. “And right now, we’re going through the world’s worst pandemic since 1918, so don’t you think we’re all more distracted?”
Have a driving question? Send it to email@example.com and put ‘Driving Concerns’ in your subject line. Emails without the correct subject line may not be answered. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.