Distracted driving is a serious problem on our roads. And the statistics are sobering. The RCMP reports that driver distraction is a factor in about four million motor vehicle crashes a year in North America. It is estimated that 80% of collisions and 65% or near crashes have some form of driver inattention as a contributing factor.
The Canadian Automobile Association reports that you are 23 times more likely to be in a collision if you are texting. Checking a text for five seconds at 90 km/hr is the equivalent to driving the length of a football field blindfolded. The OPP reports that distracted driving has been responsible for more fatalities than impaired driving in Canada since 2008. And the economic losses from distracted driving costs us 10 billion dollars a year or about 1% of our GDP.
Perhaps it’s the addictive nature of our hand-held devices or that distracted driving is not yet as socially stigmatized as impaired driving, but whatever the reason distracted driving is a clear and present danger on our roads. To discuss this issue, The Lindsay Advocate accompanied Const. Ken Downing of the Kawartha Lakes Police Service on a ‘ride-along’ to watch how this most dangerous behaviour is being combatted locally.
Before we start on our journey, Downing shows me the Mobile Data Terminal (MDT), the computer you see in the front of a police cruiser which is part of the computer aided dispatch system. Using this computer, officers also have access to Shield Basic — an app that has all the legislation for every offence in the criminal code. Downing says that this is a “handy tool for us — before this we would have to flip through books to ensure the documentation was correct on any ticket.”
And while first responders are exempt from the distracted driving legislation if it’s job-related, the KLPS has an internal policy that prohibits the use of the MDT while driving a police vehicle. So after a quick demonstration, the computer is closed as we head out onto Lindsay streets, in search of distracted driving. Today we are out looking for people contravening 78.1 of the Highway Traffic Act which states that “no person shall drive a motor vehicle on a highway if the display screen of a television, computer or other device in the motor vehicle is visible to the driver.”
We are parked in a location that drivers wouldn’t necessarily see the cruiser until the very last second, if at all. Some cops colloquially refer to these as fishing holes.
When people think of distracted driving, most people think of handheld devices but Downing has seen all sorts of examples of unsafe driving. “I have seen people putting on makeup, reading, even a driver in a manual dump truck using both hands to light a cigarette,” he says. Some of these offences can merit a charge of careless driving or even dangerous driving — charges with even stiffer penalties and demerit points.
While we watch at the first fishing hole I get a sense of Downing’s abilities. I’d always considered my observational powers to be above average but Downing made me feel downright unobservant.
“Did you see that?” he asks. “That driver just drove five car lengths without looking up. What if a kid jumped in front of the car?” I’m probably exaggerating when I say that I saw the last second of the incident. Luckily for that driver, the angle of the bright sun made determining what was actually going on a little difficult. After about 20 minutes, Downing decides to move locations.
“When a fishing hole goes dry, you move on,” he notes.
The KLPS doesn’t have a specialized traffic unit so all officers must deal with every type of offence. Downing, though, is clearly an expert in the driving offences field. He has been a Breathalyzer technician since 2007 and a drug recognition expert since 2010. Downing can also do commercial vehicle inspections and was part of a commercial vehicle enforcement initiative last year that got 17 unsafe vehicles off the road in five hours. Downing also sits on a traffic sub-committee of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police.
The 13 year veteran (who has been with the KLPS since 2009) is clearly passionate about his work. The son of a firefighter, Downing originally considered firefighting as a career and was a volunteer firefighter in Little Britain before he pursued police work. I ask Downing about his motivation to find distracted drivers. “These accidents (from distracted driving) are so preventable. If I am able to stop one person and that in turn stops one accident from happening later, I’ve done my job,” he says.
Parked now at the second fishing hole I watch as people drive by, notice Downing’s cruiser, and suddenly reach for a seatbelt. Seconds later, Downing says “there’s one” and we are out on the road to pull over the driver. Again, despite trying, I was a little slow to recognize this.
Downing pulls over the driver and using the computer-aided dispatch system is able to determine that the driver has never had a conviction for distracted driving before. (Fines and penalties increase for multiple distracted driving convictions.) But for this driver, even a first offence is an expensive lesson to learn. The ticket including surcharges is $615. If convicted there will also be a three-day license suspension, a reinstatement fee and three demerit points. Not to mention lost wages from attending court and probable insurance increases. As Downing explains ‘education through enforcement’ is the only approach that is going to change this irresponsible behaviour.
With the ride-along over, I go back to my car and decide to stow my cell phone. And not just because driving distracted is a really dangerous, stupid thing to do that risks the safety of everyone around me. I now know that when Downing, or officers like him are out there, they are eventually going to catch me should I decide to be so stupid.