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Opinion: British Columbians seeing less distracted driving: poll

Percentage of B.C. residents witnessing drivers phoning or texting has dropped by nine points in two years.
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Fewer British Columbians report seeing drivers texting at the wheel, a new poll finds

Earlier this month, the Municipal Traffic Services of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Prince George released a new set of infraction statistics.

March was a month of ramped-up enforcement in the municipality, and the numbers show it. There were 153 infractions reported across all agencies. More than two-thirds of them, 104 in total, were citations for distracted driving.

Even though British Columbia has had laws in the books for more than a decade to compel drivers to keep their mobile phone out of their hands, distracted driving  is still a prevalent problem. Drivers who use their smartphones, play music inside the car too loudly, smoke, vape, read and eat, are responsible for 27 per cent of all fatal crashes in the province.

In late 2020, Research Co. and Glacier Media asked British Columbians about distracted driving for the first time. This month, as some residents return to the office and others visit family and friends, we once again wanted to gauge perceptions on this matter.

The initial finding appears to provide some encouragement. In 2020, a majority of British Columbians (55 per cent) acknowledged having witnessed a driver talking on a hand-held cellphone or texting while driving over the preceding four weeks. When we asked the same question in 2022, the proportion dropped by nine points to 46 per cent.

British Columbians aged 18 to 34 are more likely to have noticed a driver illegally using their mobile phone in the past month (52 per cent) than their counterparts aged 35 to 54 (47 per cent) and aged 55 and over (42 per cent). The regional numbers are not uniform. While only 43 per cent of residents of northern B.C. and Metro Vancouver recall encountering a distracted driver in the past month, the proportion is higher in in southern B.C. (48 per cent) and the Fraser Valley (49 per cent) and jumps dramatically on Vancouver Island (59 per cent).

In the past couple of years, the fine for distracted drivers has not changed. If a driver is caught emailing, texting or using an electronic device while behind the wheel in British Columbia, they face a fine of $368 and four penalty points (equivalent to $252) in their insurance penalty point premium. This means a total of $620 for a first-time infraction.

Most British Columbians (56 per cent, up six points) continue to think that the current fine is “about right.” About one in four (24 per cent, down six points) believe the penalty is “too low,” while 15 per cent (up one point) consider it “too high.” As was the case in 2020, the oldest adults in the province believe it is time for a higher fine. While 30 per cent of British Columbians aged 55 and over think the current penalty is “too low,” fewer residents aged 35 to 54 (22 per cent) and aged 18 to 34 (18 per cent) feel the same way.

If the provincial government decided to get tougher on distracted drivers, the political consequences would not be significant. While one-third of British Columbians who voted for the governing B.C. New Democratic Party (BC NDP) in the 2020 provincial election consider the current fines for distracted driving as “too low,” the proportion is lower along those who supported candidates from the BC Liberals (21 per cent) and the BC Green Party (14 per cent).

In 2020, we asked about three possible penalties for drivers caught emailing, texting or using an electronic device in British Columbia. The most popular option continues to be seizing the electronic devices of repeat offenders, which is supported by 64 per cent of the province’s residents (down six points). British Columbians aged 55 and over (76 per cent) and residents of southern B.C. (79 per cent) are more likely to favour this idea.

The notion of doubling the first-time fine for distracted drivers to $1,240 is still endorsed by a majority of British Columbians (55 per cent, down four points). Once again, southern B.C. emerges as a region eager for stricter guidelines, with 70 per cent of residents endorsing this course of action.

Just over half of British Columbians (52 per cent, down two points) believe it is time to suspend distracted drivers for one year. Supporters of the BC NDP (58 per cent) and BC Liberals (54 per cent) are fonder of this possibility than Green Party supporters (48 per cent).

Some trends emerge when this year’s findings are compared to what we learned in 2020.

Fewer British Columbians are noticing distracted drivers on the province’s roads. This may be partly responsible for the slight drop in support for doubling existing fines or taking over the devices of repeat offenders. Still, a majority of residents continue to believe that it is time for harsher penalties.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from April 3 to April 5, 2022, among 800 adults in British Columbia. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in British Columbia. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.