Distracted driving is a topic that you will no doubt hear in the media with greater frequency in the coming weeks, months, and I suspect, years, and for good reason. Distracted driving kills. Distracted driving is this generation's impaired driving, and we have to stop.
Readers of this page are no strangers to my once (sometimes twice) every year or so rants about drinking and driving, and I feel the same about distracted driving, though I confess I have been a late adopter when it comes to keeping my hands off the Blackberry while driving.
When it comes to driving I'm pretty straight-laced. I don't play music in the car because I find it distracting, my hands are typically both on the wheel at the '10 and 2' positions, I'm a very frequent mirror checker, and to say I rarely speed is truly not an exaggeration. But until about a year or two ago, I frequently used my Blackberry to check and respond to email while in the car, and no, I'm not proud of it.
I started using Blackberries some 15 years ago. Back then they didn't do much aside from providing the ability to send and receive email messages, and making phone calls. The first one I owned didn't even have a screen as we know them today. The screen was LED, more like a calculator screen than the glossy high resolution touch screen featured on my current Blackberry. But it had a full keyboard and it had a scroll wheel, and I could receive and respond to my email whether I was in Barrie or Budapest, whether I was at my desk or in a rental car on the back roads of Alabama. I was connected, and at the time that's all that mattered.
Many a time I found myself in a rental car in the midst of a five- or six-hour drive, say from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Savannah, Georgia, and the ability to respond to that email from Russia, or forward that important file to a client in Mumbai made what I considered to be otherwise wasted hours gobbled up by travelling from one point to another valuable once again. Making those hours productive improved my overall performance and productivity. I confess, I thought very little about whether it was safe or not. Besides, I'm a hell of a typist, and even with the tiny keys on the Blackberry, I didn't need to look down, I could keep my eyes on the road. Everyone wins, right? Clients and colleagues around the world no longer had to wait for me to respond to their email. They didn't need to wait for me to plow through a three hour drive before sending an updated design file. If my employer was happy and the customers were happy, and if I had less work to do when I finally reached a hotel that night, then that's what mattered, right?
Even after I left that career behind and escaped the big city hustle and bustle to 'settle down' in this quiet little town, my behaviour didn't change. I was no longer commuting to Barrie on the weeks that I wasn't out of the country, I no longer had the pressures of important files and deadlines, gone was the need to have time zones around the globe memorized, yet my reflex, my instinct, whenever that Blackberry made a noise was to pick it up and respond.
In spite of my own confidence in my abilities to multi-task, I was always aware that using the Blackberry while driving carried with it some risk. Being aware of risk however isn't exactly an appreciation of risk, and when I look back now, I can't believe how reckless I had been. I suspect it is much like motorists in the generations before my own who knew there were risks associated with having a few drinks and hopping in the car, though many didn't appreciate those risks until the data started piling up – along with the bodies. That collective appreciation sparked strong messaging campaigns, and gradually over time people stopped drinking and driving, and those that didn't would find themselves in legal trouble or worse.
While I might have been rather cavalier with my use of a Blackberry while driving, I shouldn't have been.
Last year on OPP-patrolled roads alone 65 people died in auto accidents attributed to distracted driving – 20 more deaths than were caused by accidents attributed to alcohol use. Again, that is only on roads patrolled by the OPP in this province. That is a staggering number. In fact, with the exception of 2012, distracted driving has taken more lives on OPP-patrolled roads than speeding and alcohol-impaired drivers since Ontario distracted driving laws took effect in 2009.
Already this year there have been 11 deaths attributed to distracted driving – there were only four such deaths in the same period last year. And while there has been fairly frequent messaging about the dangers of distracted driving over the past few years, and while fines have been boosted to several hundred dollars, people are still doing it. A driver convicted of distracted driving faces a fine of $400, plus a victim surcharge and court fee, and three demerit points applied to their driver's record – serious penalties for a serious infraction, though I suspect we'll see the fines increased dramatically if people don't stop allowing themselves to be distracted while driving as we saw with impaired driving penalties.
Last week the OPP conducted a distracted driving campaign during which they laid more than 2,400 distracted driving charges. In one week!
It has to stop, but it will be more difficult I fear than the movement to stop people from drinking and driving. Most of us don't drink alcohol all day and night, but we sure use our devices every waking hour, making it more difficult for us to separate ourselves from the danger. That said, how many of us had fathers or grandfathers who carried a flask in their pockets 'for the drive' and how many do that today? We can change our behaviour.
Me, I had to resort to putting my Blackberry in the back seat when I'm driving – it's too tempting to pick it up when an email or text notification goes off. I found that after a few months of tossing the Blackberry in the back seat, even if I forgot and had it up front with me, the temptation to pick it up is virtually gone, even if it chirps to alert me of a new message.