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Distracted driving, from eating noodles to curling hair

Const. Tad Narraway has seen the gamut of bad driving behaviour, from a woman using two hands to eat a bowl of noodles while stuck in the Colwood Crawl to a man watching a show on Netflix on his iPad.
Integrated Road Safety Unit Const. Tad Narraway watches for distracted drivers on McKenzie Avenue in Saanich.

Const. Tad Narraway has seen the gamut of bad driving behaviour, from a woman using two hands to eat a bowl of noodles while stuck in the Colwood Crawl to a man watching a show on Netflix on his iPad.

In May, a video of a woman curling her hair on the Island Highway at Nanaimo went viral.

Narraway, a traffic cop with the Integrated Road Safety Unit (IRSU), spends a lot of time looking through a telephoto lens, snapping high-resolution photos of distracted drivers for potential use in court.

In B.C., someone caught using a cellphone or other electronic device while driving will be hit with a $167 fine. Demerit points are added for those caught texting.

The provincial government is considering following Ontario and Alberta in raising fines for distracted driving.

But while the Insurance Corp. of B.C. says the most common form of distraction for drivers is cellphone use, it largely relies on anecdotal evidence, not hard data, to back up the claim.

While distracted driving has eclipsed impaired driving as a cause of fatal crashes, the overall number of distracted driving-related deaths has dropped from 114 in 2005 (before the proliferation of smartphones) to 77 in 2013, according to ICBC statistics compiled from police reports.

And the reports explicitly blame cellphone use in only two of those 77 cases. Sixty-six were attributed to “driver inattentive,” while “internal or external distraction” was blamed for 11.

ICBC’s road safety program manager, Mark Milner, cautions that those statistics might be misleading.

The low number of fatal crashes blamed directly on cellphones could be a result of the way police check off their forms, or reflect crashes in which police believe, but can’t prove, that phones were to blame.

“So what tends to happen is if there isn’t clear evidence that it was a mobile phone in use that caused the collision or contributed to the collision, then they select ‘driver inattentive’ or ‘internal or external distraction,’ ” he said.

Exact numbers of cellphone-related injury crashes are also hard to determine because, since 2008, police haven’t been required to attend less-serious collisions. From Narraway’s experience, the likelihood that someone who causes a crash will own up to texting or talking is pretty slim.

Milner said ICBC looks at crash data around the world, particularly the U.S., to determine the impact of cellphone use.

The insurance body has seen a 16 per cent spike in rear-end crashes resulting in injury or death since 2009, which, Milner said, coincides with the widespread use of smartphones.

But he acknowledges that conclusion is somewhat speculative.

“Everything to some extent is going to have a little bit of speculation,” he said.

Rory Lambert, a Victoria personal injury lawyer, said about 85 per cent of his cases involve distracted driving.

“Now, how do I break that down further? That becomes difficult,” Lambert said. “People who have rear-ended someone aren’t necessarily going to say: ‘I was on my cellphone at the time.’ They’re going to say, ‘Oh gee, I didn’t see.’ ”

Alberta is the only province in Canada that has distracted-driving laws that cover a range of distractions, including personal grooming, reading and writing. Alberta’s legislation also covers pets in the vehicle, if they cause a significant distraction for the driver.

In the case of the woman eating noodles on the Trans-Canada Highway, Narraway said she was given a ticket for driving without due care and attention, which can cover other distractions that pose a danger.

Narraway said for every distracted-driving ticket IRSU gives out, there are about 10 more drivers they suspect but can’t prove were using a cellphone.

“People are trying to be more sneaky about it,” Narraway said. Some place their phones in their laps, increasing the danger. “Can you stop at a school zone if a kid pops out? When you pick up your phone, it’s like Russian roulette.”

In 2014, police in B.C. wrote more than 50,000 tickets to drivers who were using an electronic device while behind the wheel, about 2,000 more than the year before.

B.C. has the second-lowest distracted-driving fines in the country. The B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police has called for stiffer fines as a deterrent.

Ontario’s laws are the toughest: Drivers caught using a cellphone receive three demerit points on conviction and a judge can fine them up to $1,000.

Alberta recently increased its fines to $250 from $172, as well as three demerit points.

It’s too early to tell if distracted driving has gone down in either of those provinces as a result, said Ian Jack, spokesman for the Canadian Automobile Association.

“Fines alone don’t usually change much. We need public education as well and also the will to enforce,” Jack said. “We’re somewhere in that spectrum where people have figured out it’s not a good thing to do and they don’t want to admit they’re doing it, but they’re still doing it.”

Mike Mulligan, a Victoria lawyer who deals with ICBC claims, said he doesn’t think tougher penalties change people’s behaviour as much as social attitudes do.

“As much as people might like to think upping the penalty for something has that effect, a large contributing factor is attitudes toward the behaviour,” he said, pointing to the social stigma around drinking and driving as a major factor in its decline.

“It might make us feel good saying we’re being tough on something, but it might not make things safer.”

Mulligan also said the level of police enforcement is a big factor.

He said people who decide to text and drive don’t weigh the heft of the fine — they consider whether they’ll get caught.

Neil Boyd, Simon Fraser University’s lead criminologist, agreed that social values play a role. He also pointed to the high tax on tobacco as an example of where putting a higher price on something can change habits.

“We know the price you set something at can alter behaviour,” Boyd said.

While he supports the government’s move to increase distracted-driving fines, he said it’s clear that distracted driving includes more than just cellphone use.

“What’s interesting is when people think about distraction they tend to go automatically to communication equipment and cellphone, but it’s actually a much bigger picture than that,” Boyd said.

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