On January 1st 2019, higher penalties for persons convicted of distracted driving became law in Ontario. The higher penalties hope to counteract the alarming number of distracted driving accidents and fatalities reported by police in recent years. Distracted driving is the number one problem on Ontario highways and in our cities, and contributes to as many as one third of accidents. And, in 2018, Toronto police alone ticketed over 9000 drivers for distracted driving.
Activities that are a frequent cause of distracted driving include: talking or texting on a cell phone, checking maps or a GPS, eating or drinking, and changing a CD or playlist. However, there’s no doubt that the intensive use of electronic devices such as cell phones, particularly among young adults, has had the greatest impact on the increase in personal injury caused by distracted drivers.
If you are convicted of distracted driving, you now face higher fines, demerit points and suspension of your driver’s licence. Drivers with an A to G licence who commit a first offence will automatically receive a 3-day licence suspension, 3 demerit points and a fine between $615 and $1000, while a second conviction within a 5-year period will result in a 7-day suspension, 6 demerit points and a maximum fine of $2000. In the event of a third offence, drivers face a 30-day licence suspension, 6 demerit points and a maximum fine of $3000. And, offenders also typically experience substantial increases in their vehicle insurance premiums for three years or more.
Fines for novice drivers are the same as those for drivers with a full G licence; however, novice drivers face longer licence suspensions rather than demerit points.
How dangerous is distracted driving?
It’s been well established in studies on distracted driving that taking your attention off the road for only a few seconds will significantly increase your risk of crashing. Pedestrians and cyclists are particularly vulnerable when drivers don’t give their full attention on the road, and the increase in pedestrian fatalities in the GTA in 2018 is, in part, attributable to the increase in distracted driving actions.
Texting while driving is even more dangerous than talking on your cell phone. And, although it’s legal to use a hands-free device while driving in Ontario, considerable research has now shown that hands-free is just as distracting as a hand-held device. In fact, recent studies show that voice-to-text can actually be more distracting than texting by hand.
A recent scientific study carried out in Australia found that drivers talking on the phone experienced at least a 40% longer reaction time to road events, than drivers not using the phone, and this outcome was the same whether drivers were talking on a hand-held phone or hands-free device. This delay equates with an 11 meter slower stopping distance for a vehicle travelling 40 km/hr, but the delayed response would clearly have a much greater impact for drivers travelling at greater speeds. The study also found that the impact of talking on a phone for novice drivers is twice that for experienced drivers (in “Hands-free just as distracting as handheld mobile phone use behind the wheel”, Dec 13, 2016)..
The lead researcher for the Australian study explained that the increased load on our brains when having a conversation can change our visual scanning process while driving, and when talking on a phone, drivers tend to ‘look at’ objects but not really ‘see’ them. The situation is different when we’re conversing with passengers because passengers typically notice unexpected traffic situations the same as drivers, such as slowed traffic at construction zones, and they adjust their dialogue accordingly.
And, make no mistake, if a driver causes injury to another person and is discovered to have been talking or texting on their phone at the time of the collision, they can be charged with careless or dangerous driving, and are liable for any injuries caused to the accident victims.
Will higher penalties reduce the incidence of distracted driving?
Just two weeks after the higher penalties went into effect in Ontario, Toronto police again found it necessary to implement a one-week crackdown on distracted drivers. Toronto’s Mayor John Tory expressed concern about the fact that distracted driving continues to be a leading (and preventable) reason for motor vehicle fatalities and injuries. Among other strategies, police rode TTC public transportation and monitored for drivers trying to use their electronic devices while behind the wheel. One of the behaviours that police are particularly trying to identify are drivers who hide their phones in their laps in order to escape notice.
It may take some time for Ontario drivers to ‘get it’, in terms of adjusting their behaviour in the knowledge that there are now substantial penalties if you're caught using a cell phone or cause an accident while distracted. No responsible person wants to be seriously injured or injure another person because they took their attention off the road; nevertheless, it seems to be difficult for some people to stop behaviours that they enjoy and may not really perceive as dangerous.
Some behavioural research scientists don’t believe that large fines and jail time deters drivers from dangerous driving practices. Dr. Robert Voas, a senior research scientist, who devoted over 40 years studying impaired driving and road safety for the U.S. government and private groups, concluded that fines are not an effective deterrent for distracted driving and drunk driving. And, jail doesn’t increase the likelihood that an offender will behave better once released. Dr. Voas’ findings were supported in a 26-year study on the impact of mandatory jail sentences and fines for drunk driving convictions, which concluded that jail time had little effect on preventing serious DUI offender from re-offending (in “Text while Driving, Pay…$10,000? Why Draconian Punishments Don’t Work”).
Ontario’s fines and penalties are not as extreme as some of the penalties in the above American study, and it remains to be seen whether they will influence driving behaviour going forward. Certainly, if you, a friend or a family member suffered a life altering injury because a driver was talking on their phone or not paying attention to the road, the seriousness and impact of these actions is unFreputable. It’s really not that difficult to simply pull off the road and/or place our electronic devices out of reach while driving, so let’s incorporate safe practices that don’t endanger other road users.