Sitting in his cruiser at a pullout north of Penticton, RCMP Const. Scott McGillivray counts the people using their cell phones while driving.
“I would say every 10th car, someone is on their phone,” said McGillivray. “I am sitting here in a fully marked police vehicle. They don’t even really see the police car, they are so oblivious.”
More people are dying from distracted driving than drinking and driving, and that has caused Attorney General Suzanne Anton to reconsider whether B.C.’s penalties for using smart phones behind the wheel are tough enough.
Anton said the latest statistics from 2012 show 81 deaths from distracted driving in the year, compared to 55 related to impaired driving.
“People seem to know that they must not drink and drive, but distracted driving, people don’t seem to have the same level of awareness,” Anton said Wednesday.
McGillivray agrees that drinking and driving numbers have steadily dropped off after years of tough enforcement and education campaigns, but drivers haven’t got the message yet about cell phones.
“Distracted driving is huge. People are still on their phones, and texting too. When they are looking down texting and reading that is really scary,” said McGillivray. “People are addicted to their phones, they can’t just leave them alone.”
B.C.’s Motor Vehicle Act currently sets a $167 fine for talking on a hand-held mobile phone, and the fine for emailing or texting while driving is $167 plus three demerit points in B.C. Ontario recently raised its fine from $155 to $280, with a maximum of $500 for those who contest the fine and are convicted.
A few weeks ago Anton wasn’t convinced higher penalties would help change driver behaviour, but she said Wednesday she was disturbed to discover that B.C. has more distracted driving deaths than Ontario, which has three times the population.
“Should there be points attached to holding the handheld device and talking? Probably,” Anton said. “Should the fines be higher? Probably, so I’m having a look at both of those.”
Another statistic that caught Anton’s attention was the 51,000 distracted driving tickets handed out in B.C. in 2013. She said that’s a “huge number” that suggests the message of distracted driving is not getting through, and a reminder that seatbelt use and impaired driving also took time to impress on the public.
McGillivray said it is becoming more common to see people with peculiar damage to their face after an accident.
“What happened is the airbag goes off, the iPhone goes right in the teeth and busts them up,” he said, adding that distracted driving isn’t limited to cell phone use.
One driver involved in a severe head-on crash, turned out to have rewired his car stereo to play movies on the dashboard screen.
“He was watching movies while driving. He wasn’t paying attention, lost control and drove head on into another vehicle,” said McGillivray. The vehicle ended up far down the embankment on Waterman’s Hill near Okanagan Falls, but when it was pulled up, McGillivray said the movie was still playing.
When they are caught, McGillivray said, most distracted drivers claim it was an emergency call.
“Really, what kind of emergency can’t wait for you to pull over?” he asked. “If you wreck and crash, there is the end of your day, and there is a new emergency.”
The Superintendent of Motor Vehicles is analyzing B.C. driving habits and will report to Anton, who is considering changing penalties for distracted driving later this year.