Ashley Nunes is a senior research associate at Harvard Law School. His research explores how innovation affects markets.
Canadians worry about distracted driving and rightly so. Studies show that taking your eyes off the road – even for a few seconds – dramatically raises the odds of a crash. In 2016, distracted driving was implicated in some 21 per cent of fatal accidents and 27 per cent of serious injury collisions (instances where the car’s occupants were hurt but not killed). The growing ubiquity of this phenomenon has alarmed legislators, law enforcement organizations and safety advocacy groups who – keen to save lives – are asking Canadians to stay focused on the road.
Not all driving distractions are created equal. Talking to a passenger is bad but not as bad as reaching for your cellphone. The latter raises the odds of an accident nearly five times compared to a driver focused solely on the road. Texting whilst driving also fares poorly as does fiddling with the radio. Even though these actions mean taking your eyes off the road for just a few seconds, at 75 kilometres per hour, that’s like driving across a football field with your eyes shut.
And then there’s eating. So-called “dashboard dining” has long worried safety advocates partly because drivers see eating and driving as being less risky. In case you’re wondering, hot soups, burgers and ribs top the list for what not to indulge in while driving. Coffee is equally bad, the consumption of which gives new meaning to the adage, “don’t drink and drive.”
Laws aimed at curbing distracted driving do exist. Alberta bans drivers using cellphones, texting and flossing teeth, even while stopped at a red light. These actions instantly attract a $287 fine and three demerit points. Similar measures are in effect in Quebec and British Columbia. Ontario goes the farthest, promising to not only slap distracted drivers with a fine of up to $1,000 for a first offence, but also a three-day licence suspension. Repeat offenders face a $2,000 fine and a longer suspension period (in some cases, up to 30 days). Scared yet? If so, you’re in the minority.
It turns out that while we agree distracted driving is dangerous, we aren’t willing to give it up. Nearly 50 per cent of Canadians admit to using cell phones while driving while 30 per cent report taking their eyes off the road to do things such as rummaging through personal belongings, smoking and eating. Texting while driving has increased by 50 per cent since 2010. During the same time period, support for banning cellphone use while driving has fallen by 50 per cent. They say no text is worth your life. Canadians – it would seem – feel differently.
So do Americans, Austrians and Spanish who also experience persistently high levels of distracted driving-related fatalities. So why do we do it? Some say it’s because driving is inherently boring. You get in your car, fire up the engine and experience the same routine over and over again. Distractions offer drivers a much-needed break from the monotony. Others, like The Globe and Mail’s Oliver Moore, say some distractions – smartphones in particular – have become a quintessential part of everyday life. Consumers are “too reliant on their smartphones to imagine being disconnected.” Such explanations hold merit. But the real reason why distracted driving persists comes down to a seldom discussed truth.
Governments spend millions each year warning the public about distracted driving. Doing so – we are repeatedly told – will have, “devastating consequences on our roads, sending a ripple effect into our homes, communities and places of work.” After all, what can go wrong will, right? Wrong. When it comes to road safety, Murphy’s law doesn’t hold. Instead, what can go wrong usually doesn’t. This reality – first observed by Yale sociologist Charles Perrow - explains why most drivers – distracted at the wheel in increasingly alarming numbers – still make it home in one piece. Their trips may be riskier, yet they escape with their skin (mostly) intact.
The status quo message that “distracted driving kills” clearly isn’t resonating. Nor should it. If such reasoning were true, our roads would be littered with victims and Canadians would abandon distracted driving practices in droves. Instead of fines and laws, we need to rethink how the risks posed by distracted driving are conveyed. This means not only emphasizing that road safety is no accident but also communicating that the absence of accidents doesn’t mean the roads are safe.
Distracted driving is admittedly en vogue even though it shouldn’t be. But if the practice is to end, we must do more than repackaging the same old ideas. Public safety depends on it.
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