How the war on drunk driving distracts from the real danger

MADD should stand for Mothers Against Distracted Driving

Chris Wattie / Reuters

Military leaders, the criticism goes, are always looking to fight the last war, rather than the next one. Might the same thing apply to justice ministers?

Since being named federal justice minister this past summer, Peter MacKay has made it widely known he’s thinking about changing Canada’s drunk-driving laws. In particular, MacKay says he’s considering expanded police powers to conduct random roadside breathalyzer checks. This follows aggressive lobbying from Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada (MADD) for such a move, alongside other demands such as stiffer sentences and lower blood alcohol limits.

As deadly as it may be, however, drunk driving no longer constitutes the greatest threat on our roads. Decades of diligent effort on the part of governments, police and organizations such as MADD have permanently altered the behaviour of Canadian drivers for the better when it comes to drinking. It’s time to switch targets.

First the good news: The havoc wreaked by drunk driving has been falling in dramatic fashion. Since the mid-1980s the rate of charges laid by police for impaired driving has been in long-term decline in Canada. The rate of deaths caused by drunk driving are at the lowest level in 25 years; between 1995 and 2009, the latest statistics available, the number of drunk-driving deaths fell by more than 500 annually. Finally, polling by Canada’s Traffic Injury Research Foundation reveals drivers today are much less likely to get behind the wheel after drinking than they were just a few years ago.

Now the bad news: Earlier this month, insurance firm Allstate Canada organized high school students in 10 Canadian cities to conduct a national distracted-driving blitz. The students staked out major intersections and toted-up drivers doing things they shouldn’t. Nearly 20 per cent of all drivers were spotted either talking or texting on their cellphones, something that’s illegal in all provinces.

Instead of drinking, drivers are now distracting themselves to death.

According to the Ontario Provincial Police, as of the beginning of September, 32 deaths in the province this year are attributable to impaired driving, while 47 were caused by distracted driving. Texting is the most deadly of these distractions. The Canadian Automobile Association claims texting drivers are 23 times more likely to be in an accident than a driver who’s paying attention to the road. Experiments have also shown drivers who are actively texting have reaction times substantially slower than someone legally impaired by alcohol.

While drivers of all ages are guilty of texting and driving, U.S. government research suggests drivers under 25 are two to three times more likely to do so. Texting while driving has become the most prevalent form of risky behaviour and the No. 1 cause of death on the road among teenagers, according to other research from the Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New York. “The reality is kids aren’t drinking seven days per week,” notes study author Dr. Andrew Adesman. But “they are carrying their phones and texting seven days per week, so you intuitively know this is a more common occurrence.”

In light of all this, how much sense does it make to continue to add new weapons to the old war against drunk driving? We ought instead to acknowledge the tremendous success Canada has enjoyed in reducing impaired driving and use those lessons to fight new and more pressing problems. Rather than floating plans for expanded random breath tests, MacKay should be outlining how he plans to stop teens, and everyone else, from texting while they drive.

Beyond increasing the size and type of penalties, greater enforcement obviously helps. Police services have lately been getting more aggressive about texting, with some jurisdictions disguising officers as roadside panhandlers to get a better view of drivers’ laps. If drivers have a greater sense they’re being watched, perhaps they’ll think twice about engaging in such risky behaviour. Technology could also play a part in preventing or discouraging drivers from texting in a moving vehicle.

The greatest potential, however, lies in summoning the power of public attention, opinion and condemnation. Texting while driving needs to become as universally reviled as driving drunk. Humour can also be an effective tool in changing behaviour. Besides conducting its street-corner survey, Allstate also sponsors a student video contest aimed at discouraging distracted driving; last year’s winning entry promoted an amusing fictional product called the Safety Thumb, a small shroud slipped over a driver’s thumb to make texting impossible.

Finally, perhaps even MADD Canada—a dominant national advocate for safer roads—could signal this new reality by slightly altering its own name. Mothers Against Distracted Driving wouldn’t even require a new acronym.

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