Distracted driving is leading cause of driving fatalities in Canada

Summer 2017

Ask LHSC trauma physician Dr. Kelly Vogt about the most difficult aspect of her work, she’ll tell you that it is talking to the families of patients severely injured as a result of distracted driving.

“That is the toughest part for me because everyone knows they shouldn’t be on a cell phone, for example, and there tend to be a lot of questions which are not answerable by either me or the trauma team because at that point we just don’t know. We can’t answer the question of what happened and that is very difficult,” says Dr. Vogt, LHSC Associate Director of the Trauma Program.

For Sergeant Amanda Pfeffer, Traffic Management Unit, London Police Service, the toughest part is the innocent people who have been impacted by a distracted driver.

“The victims are often people just going from point A to point B getting on with their lives. The impact that these collisions also have on the family and friends of the victim is lasting, and this is preventable,” says Sgt. Pfeffer.

“It strikes me at every accident scene: this was preventable.”

Across Canada, distracted driving has become the leading cause of all collisions.

We talked to Dr. Vogt, Sgt. Pfeffer, as well as Brandon Batey, Injury Prevention Specialist with the LHSC Trauma Program, and asked them about distracted driving and how we can bring about change.

What do we mean by distracted driving? Who is most at risk?

Brandon Batey

Distracted driving is not only talking or texting on a cell phone. Other forms of distraction also have a major impact, including eating while driving, changing the radio station, or putting on make-up. Anything that takes your mind, eyes, or hands away from the task of driving is distracting and increases the risk of a crash.

There are three levels of distraction:

  • Manual (holding or manipulating something)
  • Visual (looking at something, reading something)
  • Cognitive (not thinking about the road, daydreaming, talking or texting on the phone)


Sgt. Amanda Pfeffer

Studies show that with every additional distraction in your vehicle the likelihood of becoming involved in a collision increases dramatically. As the driver, you are responsible for the safety of everyone within your vehicle and also those around your vehicle, pedestrians, cyclists, and other vehicles. That can be distracting itself but when you add the distraction of a cell phone and eating and, and, and…you increase your chance of crashing.

The novice driver is most at risk because of their inexperience. They haven’t been driving for long enough to anticipate other driver actions nor their own in an emergency situation. The 16- to 25-year-old demographic is often more likely to take risks.

However, that demographic is also the best educated about distracted and other dangerous driving behaviours. There is strong influence amongst peers not to be on a cell phone while driving. It is their driving inexperience that puts them at greater risk.

What is the impact of distracted driving on the roads?

Sgt. Amanda Pfeffer

Distracted driving has become the leading cause of all collisions across the nation. In London last year there were nearly 8,500 collisions. This is a significant reduction from the approximately 10,000 collisions that occurred in 2015. Distracted, impaired and aggressive driving behaviours continue to lead the list of causes of these preventable collisions.

In London in 2015, overall 2,491 people were ticketed for this offence, and in 2016 just over 1,900 people were ticketed. It is apparent, and unfortunate, that motorists are still willing to risk being ticketed, but worse, causing a collision which may end someone’s life.

What are we seeing at the hospital in our trauma program?

Dr. Kelly Vogt 

We’re seeing an increase in patients in crashes where we suspect distracted driving is the cause. What is interesting, is that there is not a particular demographic afflicted. We’re seeing young and old, male and female, many different circumstances.

From my perspective, because in trauma we’re only seeing people with multi-system injuries, they’re coming in with very serious injuries. And, they do tend to be more serious because often they’re not aware of the impending impact so the protective maneuvers which might lessen the impact don’t occur.

We try to keep data, however unlike with drunk drivers, there is no blood test to confirm distracted driving and if the patient is unable to communicate we don’t know until a later stage - if we ever know.

Having said that, trauma volumes due to motor vehicle crashes have increased in the last few years. Though volumes do ebb and flow, we think that the increase in distracted driving has contributed to an increase in trauma volumes.

How is distracted driving being addressed in London and beyond?

Brandon Batey

On a hospital level, we have our Impact! program, an education initiative we started almost 25 years ago to heighten teen awareness of the potential consequences of high-risk behaviour such as drinking and drug use while driving. We have in recent years incorporated distracted driving into the program, including a distracted driving simulator that we bring to the high schools, universities, colleges, fairs and workplaces.

LHSC is also part of a city-led strategy -- the London and Middlesex Road Safety Strategy -- a five-year strategy started in 2014 focusing on major issues on the roads in the region. Distracted driving is one. We, along with the Middlesex-London Health Unit, lead the steering committee. Other partners include London Police, the Ontario Provincial Police, Young Drivers of Canada, and Middlesex County.

The collective goal is to decrease severe and fatal collisions by 10 per cent by 2019.

Sgt. Amanda Pfeffer

Road safety partnerships are critical in improving road safety. We are working together with community partners to improve road safety through education, enforcement, research and innovation.  

In terms of enforcement, in September of 2015 the Province of Ontario increased the fine for driving while holding a handheld communication device to $490 from $280 for a first time offence. Three demerit points upon conviction were also added to the penalty. It is hoped that the Ministry will continue to explore ways to improve the sanctions related to cell phone use while driving.

What else can be done? How can we achieve a cultural shift to see this change?

Dr. Kelly Vogt

We need to make it socially unacceptable and the way to do this is by changing behaviours through injury prevention programs, enforcement of legislation, and better coordination between hospitals,  law enforcement, paramedics, cell phone carriers and car companies to improve the identification of distracted driving as a factor in a crash. Only when we have a significant amount of data to respond to what I think is an epidemic, can we then target activities in high-risk offenders.

Sgt. Amanda Pfeffer

It will be several years before it becomes entirely socially unacceptable. People don’t think it will happen to them; that a member of their family will be impacted, but that is just not the case.

The young generation seems aware of this. The older generations need to change.

Brandon Batey

The goal is to decrease severe and fatal collisions. No number is acceptable and we are desperate to make a difference.

Some cities have adopted what is called a Vision Zero road strategy, that is, no loss of life is acceptable. Sweden was the first country to adopt the Vision Zero strategy. In Canada, Edmonton has adopted the strategy and Toronto is now in the process of doing so.

We’ve got to make this socially unacceptable, we need to role model, we cannot be bystanders as passengers and we all have a role in ensuring that all road users are safe.


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