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A student texts while driving on a machine that simulates distracted driving. In an Insurance Bureau test, every driver crashed.

Jeff Schrier/The Associated Press

At its core, the problem of distracted driving revolves around the ability, or inability of humans to do more than one thing, competently, at the same time.

As Robyn Robertson, the president of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation notes, "Multitasking is a myth, but we often convince ourselves that we are capable of it. Humans are serial processors of information and they are only capable of consciously focusing on one task at a time."

That, in essence, would seem to be the "nut" of driver distraction. The challenge extends beyond personal electronic devices to vehicles hardwired with myriad interactive equipment.

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Nothing less than "a complete overhaul of the culture of driving is necessary because technology is now so complex," says Angelo DiCicco, GTA director of Young Drivers of Canada and an instructor for 28 years. "I increasingly view my role as being the interface between technology and the driver: to ensure that technology is a help not a hindrance."

A recent study by the Canadian Automobile Association claims it takes 33.6 seconds to reply to a text, 10.6 seconds to answer a cellphone, 26.7 seconds to adjust a GPS. Doesn't seem like an eternity does it? Well, think again. According to Canadian Global Road Safety research, 80 per cent of all collisions occur when drivers look away for three seconds, or less. That being the case, does it surprise anyone that CAA stats claim folks text messaging are 23 times more likely to crash, or those talking on a cellphone are five times more likely to crash.

Provincial governments across Canada have responded by banning the use of hand-held PEDs while driving, and Ontario Chief Justice Annemarie Bonkalo generated attention last week by arbitrarily raising the penalty for distracted driving to $280 and refusing comment on the decision. Police chiefs in British Columbia, citing 91 deaths annually from distracted driving, recently called for fines to be doubled. "Everybody does it. There is so much of it, you can't say one generation does it more than another," said Corporal Robert McDonald of the RCMP's E Division Traffic Services.

The Ontario Provincial Police recently ran a distracted driving campaign, and police say officers will be raising awareness and focusing enforcement on the problem.

On top of raising the fine for distracted driving to $280 as of March 18, 2014, Ontario is also proposing a hike in penalties for distracted drivers by imposing three demerit points in addition to a maximum fine of up to $1,000. Drivers who receive demerit points could face higher insurance premiums.

Distracted driving is becoming Public Enemy No. 1 for the simple reason that it's causing mayhem on our roads. It is a factor in more than four million motor vehicle crashes in North America alone. A recent Insurance Board of Canada report argues that drivers talking and texting on their cellphones are just as impaired as someone who is legally drunk, i.e. with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08.

Arguably the leading figure examining the "science" of driver distraction is David Strayer, of the University of Utah's Applied Cognition Lab. Among his conclusions is cellphone use in a car results in a condition called "inattention blindness." "One of the things we know when people are talking on a cellphone is they get kind of tunnel vision, they don't see information on the periphery … so if there's a car, or a pedestrian, something like that, they just don't see it …about half the visual information is removed."

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The inability of humans to multitask extends to the act of communicating itself. According to Teresa Di Felice of the CAA, new research suggests that participating in a complex conversation can be potentially hazardous. "Your mind will not be focused on driving if you are having a serious conversation."

Indeed, the part of the brain that processes visual information, vital for driving, is different from the part of the brain necessary for complex argument. Stimulating one reduces activity in the other. For that and other reasons, Di Felice believes it time to strike "the right balance" between driver connectivity and traffic safety.

Despite mounting evidence about the dangers, governments are challenged to get "buy-in" from the driving public. "Texting and driving must be seen to be as 'socially unacceptable' as drinking and driving," said the Insurance Board's Peter Karageorgos.

A while back, the IBC created a simulated vehicle called a "dumb car," and at a recent convention gave its users a cellphone with the following challenge: Go ahead, text and drive. "One hundred per cent of them crashed during the simulation," recalls Karageorgos.

ATTENTION GETTERS

Cell phones are one of the most common distractions for drivers. Drivers engaged in text messaging on a cellular phone are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash or near crash event compared with non-distracted drivers.

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– Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, 2010

84 per cent of distracted-driving-related fatalities in the US were tied to the general classification of carelessness or inattentiveness.

– U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 200980 per cent of collisions and 65 per cent of near crashes have some form of driver inattention as contributing factors.

– U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2010Distracted drivers are three times more likely to be in a crash than attentive drivers.

– Alberta Transportation, 2011

Driver distraction is a factor in four million motor vehicle crashes in North America each year.

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Economic losses caused by traffic collision-related health care costs and lost productivity are at least $10 billion annually. That's about 1 per cent of Canada's GDP.

– Government of Canada

In 2010, distracted driving was a contributing factor in 104 collision fatalities in British Columbia.

– RCMP

International research shows that 20 to 30 per cent of all collisions involve driver distraction.

– Alberta Transportation, 2011

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