The British government has recently decided to toughen sentences on drivers who cause death while using their mobile phones. It’s not just the UK; other states and cities in North America are also adopting tougher measures to combat distracted drivers.
While drunk driving fatalities in the U.S. have decreased by more than half since 1982 — thanks to effective campaigns and consistent media reporting — another universal problem has taken hold and is threatening road safety. The use of handheld technology has greatly increased in the last three decades, and individuals are likely to own more than one electronic device now. Even vehicle manufacturers are installing screens and other voice-based features, which actually distract drivers more than traditional, manual features.
Adding to the high-profile case where three children and a woman were killed when a lorry driver who was distracted by his mobile phone ploughed straight into their car, The Guardian reported that in the UK, in 2016 alone “157 people were sentenced for causing death by dangerous driving, with a further 32 convicted of causing death by careless driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.”
The lorry driver received a ten-year sentence in October 2016, a punishment many opined is too lenient for the manslaughter of four. “The average sentence for causing death while driving is less than four years,” reported The Telegraph. Part of the UK government’s renewed efforts to improve road safety, maximum penalties have been raised from 14 years to life sentences of imprisonment.
The Oregon Department of Transportation considers distracted driving a statewide problem too. A report published in February 2017 by the department’s Distracted Driving Task Force notes the urgency of the situation, “In Oregon, a crash caused by distracted driving occurs approximately every three hours. It has become an epidemic facing the country and the state with traffic fatalities and injuries increasing each year.” The force recommends amending the current cell phone statute and implementing coordinated education and media campaign, among others.
Effective October 1, 2017, the state of Oregon expanded the existing ban on cell phone use while driving to all electronic mobile devices. First-time offenders face fines of US$130-$1,000, and if that’s not enough of a deterrent, violators face fines of US$220-2,500 for their second offense, and a misdemeanor conviction with a minimum fine of US$2,000 and up to six months in jail for their third offense.
Distracted driving is also a prevalent threat in Canada’s roads. Canada’s National Action Plan report to address distracted driving points to a general upward trend in the percentage of fatally injured drivers across all age groups from the year 2000-2013. The Canadian government has banned the use of handheld phones while driving, implemented measures for enforcement and education, and strengthened data collection “in relation to enforcement activities, observational surveys and fatal crashes.”
Despite the penalties introduced, reports from the Ottawa Police Service indicate that distracted driving fines had totaled one million dollars in the first 10 months of 2016 and that “drivers perceive distracted driving citations as the ‘cost of doing business.’”
While the province of Ontario in Canada currently has no legislation for careless driving causing death, the government also plans to crack down on distracted driving. In 2016, a total of 483 people were killed on Ontario roads, CTV News reported.
Ontario’s legislators are proposing a new law that metes out tougher punishment for careless and distracted drivers who cause death and injury. That includes a license suspension of up to five years, fines of CA$2,000-$50,000, and up to two years of jail time.
It’s clear that penalties in the form of fines, jail sentences and license suspensions alone will not change all drivers’ behaviors. Different from drunk driving, driving while multitasking, texting or checking one’s Twitter or Facebook feed has become a habit for many, which makes it difficult to change these behaviors.
The impulse to respond to calls and messages on the phone instantly is difficult to break. Considering how simple it is to activate hands-free or built-in devices to receive calls, it should be widely encouraged and accepted as a standard. Another positive habit that can be taught to new drivers is to switch the phone to silent mode while driving.
While there is a need to devise research-driven campaigns, there is limited knowledge regarding distracted driving and a lack of proven strategies to combat the issue. It would perhaps be more effective to reinforce the unacceptability of such bad habits early on through education to prevent its formation, specifically in the context of driving. The public would also benefit greatly from unified educational campaign messages that highlight the urgency of the issue.
The use of media to change public perception about distracted driving is also key. Consistently reporting distracted driving events can increase the behavior’s perceived risk, motivate a change in social norms, and eventually prevent significant loss of life and injuries.