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Focusing on the task at hand: Reducing distracted driving and staying safe on the roads

May 16, 2022

When Kylee Bowman, a youth advisor at the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF), is driving with her friends, she sets clear boundaries: eyes on the road, chit chat at a minimum, phone in the console. She might not be your stereotypical 20-year-old driver, but Kylee takes distracted driving seriously. When she was just 8 years old, she was involved in a car crash that had lasting impacts, so she recognizes just how much even a non-fatal collision can affect your life.

According to Robyn Robertson, President and CEO of TIRF, almost 1 in 4 fatal crashes include distraction as a contributing factor. And it isn't just our phones. Distracted driving includes behaviours that many people don't consider unsafe, like looking down to grab a coffee, fixing our hair in the mirror at a red light, or just daydreaming about getting home. One shocking statistic shows that a driver travelling at 100 km/h who looks away from the road for 2 seconds has pretty much covered the length of a hockey rink. A lot can happen over 52 metres.

So how does Kylee deal with the phone or the music or the navigation system while she's driving? Quite simply, she doesn’t. "While the car's in motion, it's just not an option. You don't like the song? Deal with it."

Kylee Bowman, youth advisor at TIRF

That straightforward attitude comes from her experiences, and from the focus that driver education programs now place on distractions. Robertson stresses that a big part of making roads safer is that educational component, for younger and older drivers alike. "We've done a good job with laws and penalties, and with strengthening driver education, but we need more effort and attention to get to adult drivers with meaningful messaging and education. Driving is already a divided attention task."

Robyn Robertson, President and CEO of TIRF

Working with the community

Debbie Hammond, a practitioner with the Safer Roads Alliance, agrees. Her Alberta-based not-for-profit has a mandate to reduce traffic fatalities through educational services. They work with local industry to take in-house expertise and influence into communities to educate people about better practices behind the wheel. She cites a 2010 Alberta Motor Association study showing that the further you are from getting your license, the less likely you are to know the rules of the road. Complacency can be a major risk factor. But she also thinks every road user has a responsibility. "Yes, that driver should definitely stop for you at the crosswalk. But you should also have your eyes up and not step blindly off the curb with your eyes on your phone."

She says crash mock-ups that try to reach youth can be successful, but eventually they get watered down. The Safer Roads Alliance’s goal is to have young drivers in schools talking to students in a language they understand about things relevant to them, like distractions behind the wheel and peer pressure.

In Manitoba, TIRF is working with schools through Route to School, an app students use to map their route to school and identify areas where they feel unsafe. Teachers can then use that information to teach road safety and talk about a road or traffic feature that everyone knows. It's an effective approach to make road safety personal.

Reaching young drivers

That personal approach works with her peers, says Kylee. Among her friends, she tries to have constructive conversations that might be awkward at first, but are ultimately successful when they're honest and respectful. She's been open about the fact that after her crash, it took her some time to understand the impact. Even though no one died in the collision, she suffered memory loss, pain, and would find herself getting angry for no reason. She says that art helped her cope and understand where she was in her recovery, how she's healed and where she's come from.

"It was kind of a personal diary to see where I am. Everything changes after a crash like that. I had a certain personality before that and a certain piece of you is gone. You essentially have to learn to work with the limitations you now have."

Robertson cautions that we need to pay special attention to young drivers, post-COVID. The closure of driver education and testing centres during the pandemic means there are many young people waiting to get their licenses and get on the road. And when you couple that with self-reported behaviour about increased risk-taking, distraction and impairment during the pandemic, "We have the potential to lose a lot of the progress we've made reducing road crashes and death," she says.

But we can't go backwards. And what is clear is the need for ongoing education and awareness, and an engaged network of grassroots, industry and government stakeholders.

Telematics and usage-based insurance is another powerful tool that can have a positive impact on driving behaviour. Telematics involves installing a device in a vehicle to record behaviours like hard braking, quick acceleration and using your phone while driving. Usage-based insurance accounts for things like the type of vehicle, and the overall driving time, distance and location. Insurers analyze the data and the behaviour and can adjust insurance premiums. It's a consumer-focused approach to influencing driver behaviour that continues to grow in popularity.

Robertson thinks the approach has a lot of potential. "But the challenge will be getting to the drivers who think they're above average, because they don't necessarily want the feedback. Telematic devices that provide feedback in the moment can be powerful because we know the most effective messaging for drivers happens when they're doing the behaviour."