JIM VIBERT: Distracted driving

Texting passes drinking as worst road hazard  

Published on September 9, 2017

A white minivan slowly weaves along the old highway, swerving to the shoulder to let other cars pass before lurching back onto the pavement, across the centre line, and eventually finding its lane.

It looks like a drunk has the wheel, so the man on the motorcycle wisely pulls off until the erratic oncoming driver goes by. The van is full of young girls, children really. Their driver, perhaps the mother of one or more, shows no signs of inebriation and every sign of full engagement with her cell phone.
Once, having a few drinks and driving home wasn’t considered a big deal. Pre-1980, the fine for impaired driving was around $100 and you might walk for three months. The real damage was in lives devastated and lost in bloody highway tragedies.
The Chronicle Herald was the first institution in Nova Scotia to step up and say, “This can’t go on.” The paper published the names of convicted drunk drivers. The stigma was more feared than the legal sanction. A young reporter working out of Truro was offered $5,000 to keep a convicted drunk driver’s name out of the paper. I turned him down, and his identity appeared along-side all the rest.
My journalistic integrity was intact, as was my blind hypocrisy. I was no less guilty than the boozy cruiser, just luckier. I never got caught.
When people finally got serious about drunk driving, penalties increased exponentially. Today, a first offense carries and automatic $1,000 fine and a year’s licence suspension. Three-time losers could find themselves behind bars for five years and never licensed to drive again.
A new plague has eclipsed booze as the worst road hazard, yet legal and social sanctions are far behind. Society allowed years of carnage and heartbreak before legal action and social stigma reduced drunks on the roads. But, the lesson apparently wasn’t transferrable.
In America, keeper of meticulous and accessible records, 78 per cent of “distracted” drivers are texting. Safely assume the same applies in Canada.
In both Canada and the U.S., it’s estimated that more than half of all traffic “accidents” are caused by digital-distraction.
Need more? How about the fact that texting is now six-times more likely to cause a crash than drinking. Empirically, it is safer to get drunk and drive than to text and drive.
The two hazards have this in common: drunks and texters are in denial. When polled, 77 per cent of adults and 55 per cent of teenage drivers say that they can easily manage texting while driving. Remember, “I’m OK to drive,” – the protest of a friend weaving out the door?
It takes, on average, five seconds to read a text, a reply even longer. Two seconds of inattention is a potentially fatal decision.
Massively increased penalties, strict enforcement and a concentrated and prolonged public campaign successfully discouraged most folks from driving after drinking.
Similar action to discourage digitally-distracted driving needs to precede, not follow, a death tool and devastation that promises to climb otherwise.
Police have stepped up efforts to catch texters but it’s a tougher job than nabbing drunks. Penalties have increased, but not nearly enough. Public awareness is abysmal. A driver using a hand-held device should face the same legal sanctions as a drunk driver.
P.E.I. and Newfoundland have the toughest digital-distraction laws in the country, with fines ranging from $500 to $1,200 and loss of driving privileges, but that’s still a long way from penalties for drunk driving. Nova Scotia like the rest of the country, are further behind.
More than 1,600 children are killed in the USA every year because of crashes involving texting. Proportionally, the stats in Canada will be similar. But numbers are abstract, until it’s your kid.
We need to get serious now, with comparable penalties for drunk and texting drivers, and the public needs more than a few radio and TV spots to get the message.
How high does the body count need to climb?

- Jim Vibert spent 10 years as a political reporter and editor with the Halifax Herald; and 14 years with the Nova Scotia government where he set up Communications Nova Scotia