Interview: TIRF discusses Canadian Coalition on Distracted Driving National Action Plan

Published: May 8, 2017

Updated: July 24, 2018

Author: Luke Jones

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Interview: TIRF discusses Canadian Coalition on Distracted Driving National Action Plan

The Canadian Coalition on Distracted Driving (CCDD) published its National Action Plan, a roadmap to combat the growing number of distracted drivers. The National Action Plan comes at a crucial time, as distracted driving is becoming an epidemic problem on Canada’s roads. ShopInsuranceCanada.ca recently spoke with the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF), one of the groups behind the National Action Plan.

Distracted driving is one of the most troubling issues in Canadian motoring. Rising trends in drivers operating a vehicle while distracted have sent alarm bells ringing through government, insurance companies, industry groups, and experts.

25 per cent of all deaths on Canadian roads in 2013 were caused by distracted driving. This shows the problem is real and that it is becoming an issue for every Canadian. The CCDD created the National Action Plan to help stem growing rates of collisions caused by distractions, by developing the most concise review on how governments and organizations can manage the problem.

TIRF has been joined by 23 other key agencies within the CCDD, including representatives from government, enforcement, health, industry and communities. The National Action Plan comprises 15 components that seek to enhance knowledge and education around distracted driving, while also promoting ways to decrease the number of motorists operating a vehicle while distracted.

The plan focuses on four priority areas: education and prevention, enforcement, data and research, and technology and industry.

To develop the plan, the CCDD considered the numerous causes of distracted driving and how drivers can be engaged to avoid driving while distracted. Among the topics researched were: driver behaviour, penalties, enforcement, education campaigns, devices and in-vehicle technologies, emergency medical care, auto insurance, the transportation industry and automated vehicles.

Distracted driving now causes more deaths on Canadian roads than impaired driving. How will the action plan engage drivers and educate them on the risks, and is creating a social stigma around distracted driving a possibility?

Distracted driving deaths have surpassed impaired driving deaths in some Canadian jurisdictions according to the latest fatality data. Nationally, distraction was a factor in an estimated 25 per cent of drivers killed in fatal crashes in 2013. This troubling trend has made distracted driving a top road safety priority for governments and organizations across the country. While a wide range of initiatives have been pursued by concerned stakeholders to tackle this pressing problem, there is an urgent need for a coordinated and comprehensive blueprint to effectively address it. To help fill this gap, the Canadian Coalition on Distracted Driving (CCDD) was formed to develop a National Action Plan, which was published on March 2, 2017. The Plan contains 15 action items organized according to four priority areas: education and prevention, enforcement, data and research, and technology and industry. It was designed to inspire and engage agencies concerned about distracted driving and provide them with tools to help reverse this trend.

The lack of consistent and universal data regarding distracted driving is an issue. The Action Plan wants “to explore the development of a standard, uniform definition of distracted driving”. Is there a timeframe for when we could expect to see such a standard published?

The 2nd annual meeting of the CCDD took place last week; exploration of the potential of creating a standard, uniform definition of distracted driving for data collection purposes was one of the topics on the agenda. One of the challenges associated with creating the definition is that road safety is a provincial responsibility, and there are variations in provincial legislation which have important implications for definitions. At the meeting, we explored what common ground with regard to definitions already exists, and what opportunities are available to further increase consistency so that data can be more easily compared.

What can insurance companies do to raise awareness about distracted driving and combat it, and are insurance companies hard enough on their customers who have been caught operating a vehicle while distracted?

Insurance companies have an important role to play in educating drivers about the risks, as well as improving strategies to help manage distracted drivers. The Co-operators, a partner in the CCDD, along with Manitoba Public Insurance and Saskatchewan Government Insurance and others, is taking the lead on creating an insurance industry initiative to examine current practices and consider ways that companies can work cooperatively to manage distracted drivers.  

The Action Plan can stimulate the private and public sector, but can the war on distracted driving only be won by making punishments more of a deterrent?

Distracted driving a is a complex issue that requires a combination of legislation, enforcement, education and awareness to change driver behaviours. The use of punishment is one of many tools that can deter some drivers; however, not all drivers are motivated by punishment to change their behaviour. To illustrate, while police agencies have utilized both overt and covert enforcement tactics to detect drivers, both tactics have similarly resulted in large numbers of citations that resulted in penalties. Anecdotal reports from police have suggested that drivers perceive distracted driving citations as the “cost of doing business,” and while some drivers have switched to hands-free devices, and others may use their phone less often, it is estimated that more drivers have aimed to merely avoid detection by holding their phone out of sight. So, in conjunction with punishment, a range of other strategies to motivate behaviour change are needed. TIRF released a road safety campaign tool kit which includes a fact sheet on how research can help drive effective road safety campaigns geared towards changing driver. You can find this fact sheet on our website: http://tirf.ca/wpcontent/uploads/2017/01/TIRF_Toolkit_Factsheets_RoadSafetyCampaignEffectiveness.pdf.

What does CCDD make of Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s call for the federal government to create a national standard for laws on distracted driving? How essential is such a plan?

Increasing penalties, fines and demerits alone will not solve this problem. It’s part of the solution, but it’s not the entire solution. Changing behaviour is one of the hardest things to do, so, a massive coordinated education campaign is going to be critical to achieve the necessary level of awareness about the risks and real consequences of distracted driving. In other words, it will be equally important to change social norms such that distracted driving is unacceptable.

Autonomous vehicles are widely predicted to be able to transform road safety. However, true driverless vehicles are at least a decade away. In the meantime, are in-car systems an equal distraction to a cell phone? Basically, these systems place the screen and functionality of a smartphone on a central console.

I think we’re not keeping pace. The technology is advancing much more quickly than we can study it and evaluate it and test it for its effects in terms of distraction. The crash risk associated with hands-free texting while driving is not as well understood because in-car voice to-text technology is relatively new, and few studies investigating this specific issue have been completed to date. What is known, however, supports the contention that hands-free texting while driving poses significant distraction, and consequently, unacceptable crash risk. One of the more recent studies on this issue published in June 2016 by the University of Sussex in the Transportation Research journal revealed that using hands-free technology while driving is just as distracting as using a handheld device.

Information on the University of Sussex study is available here: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/35831

During the gradual move to fully automated cars, is the technology the ultimate distraction. Is there a chance semi-autonomous vehicles will make drivers too relaxed?

The Traffic Injury Research Foundation conducted a public opinion survey about autonomous vehicles in May 2016 with the results released in September 2016. The results of this poll demonstrated that the limitations of automated vehicle technology are not well-understood by the public. Almost 1 in 6 Canadians believed that they would not have to be attentive when driving a semi-automated vehicle, and that they would not have to be prepared to take control of it unexpectedly. Equally concerning, at least some drivers reported they would be more willing to take risks when using a semi-automated vehicle. Almost 25% of drivers reported they would drive tired or fatigued, and 17% would engage in a non-driving activity such as texting, reading or working more than they do now. And, 10% and 9% of drivers respectively indicated that they would be more willing to sleep or nap behind the wheel, or drink and drive. These findings underscored that drivers are not aware of their continued role in the safety equation as these vehicles become available. Such misperceptions have real potential to negatively affect driver behaviour and result in either unintentional misuse or abuse of technologies that are able to assist drivers, but not replace them.

The full report is available here: http://tirf.ca/TIRFCAD16J

The executive summary is available here: http://tirf.ca/TIRFCAD16K

How drivers say they will use self-driving vehicles infographic is available here: http://tirf.ca/TIRFCAD16K1

Finally, you mention in the plan that there are “many other gaps that require attention”. What are some of these gaps?

The other gaps are more specific to individual sectors and industries and will require more tailored approaches. For example, there is a need to tailor company safety policies that are industry-specific, there are a wide range of data collection issues in transportation and health sectors which must be addressed, there is a need for targeted education campaigns that are specific to young children and reflective of their developmental capabilities, in addition to a number of research questions that require attention.