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Traffic fatalities have been trending down in both Canada and the United States since 2005, but a report from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last week might signal a dangerous reversal of the trend. NHTSA reports there was a significant 4 per cent increase in pedestrian fatalities in 2010, the most recent year for which hard data are available.

A total of 4,280 pedestrians were killed in vehicle-related incidents and another 70,000 injured in 2010 in the United States, marking the first increase since 2005. Published Canadian data only goes as far as 2009, but like the U.S. we too have had a reduction in traffic deaths each year since 2005. Experts have suggested the sudden reversal of the trend line is related to what U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called the "epidemic" of distracted driving.

It reminded me of a study done by Car and Driver magazine a couple of years ago that showed that texting while driving is more dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol. The magazine tested two of its staff while driving vehicles at 70 miles per hour on a closed track. One employee was tested while he had a blood alcohol content of 0.08, legally drunk in Ontario. The other was tested while texting. The impaired driver was able to stop his vehicle within four feet of where he stopped while sober. The second driver tried braking while reading a text. His vehicle stopped 36 feet beyond where he stopped when not distracted. Next he tried stopping while sending a text and this time he went an extra 319 feet.

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I am absolutely not making a defence for drinking and driving, but the test showed that at least the "drunk" driver had his eyes on the road and stopped faster. The provincial government states that distracted driving is cited as a causal factor in 30 to 50 per cent of traffic collisions in Ontario, but it may be higher due to under-reporting.

I would wager that every day all of you who drive cars will see other drivers texting and talking on hand-held devices. I was nearly run off the road on Highway 400 by a woman in a big SUV who was texting away while nearly pushing me of the shoulder. I think the increase in pedestrian fatalities after a five-year decline has something to do with the explosion of SMS or texting on cellphones.

Ontario's ban on hand-held devices while driving took effect on October, 2009. Using a cellphone or device capable of texting while driving gets you a fine of $155. Watching an entertainment device can gets a fine of $110.

Compare that with the penalties for impaired driving – the first offence means an immediate loss of licence for three months and minimum fine of $1,150. The second offence gets a bigger fine and 30 days in jail. I'm not saying that's too high but I am saying the distracted driving penalties are too low. From looking around on the roads, you can see the threat of a $155 fine hasn't had much of a deterrent effect.

Now let's look a little deeper into the NHTSA numbers on pedestrian fatalities: 68 per cent of pedestrian deaths occurred at night and an amazing 79 per cent happened away from intersections, which likely means jay walkers. I suspect if drivers can be distracted so can pedestrians. How many times have you seen pedestrians oblivious to traffic as they wander along wearing headphones or using cellphones. You've probably seen reports from drivers who say they have nearly hit pedestrians who didn't see them or hear them. However, "distracted walking bills" have gone nowhere.

If, as the Ontario government states, distracted driving is cited as a causal factor in 30 to 50 per cent of traffic collisions and pedestrian fatalities have suddenly spiked up, it's a sure sign that the message about distracted driving being "worse" that drunken driving truly hasn't sunk in.

mvaughan@globeandmail.com

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