News & Resources

Distracted Driving: The Greatest Threat on Canadian Roads

Feb. 26, 20
6 mins
Distracted driving

Picture yourself sitting in the passenger seat of a friend’s car while you’re both cruising down a street or highway, and the driver begins to fidget with a mobile phone. What do you do? Do you tell them to put the phone away and drive? Or do you whisper a silent prayer and hope for the best?

Distracted driving has become the greatest road-safety threat in Canada. Incredibly, it has surpassed the menace impaired driving poses, and according to the results of a recent Rates.ca survey, 40% of Canadians believe distracted driving is the No. 1 cause of vehicular deaths on our roads versus 33% who say impaired driving is. Regardless, both distracted and impaired driving is incredibly dangerous and reckless.

On a more encouraging note, as a passenger in a vehicle, 20% say they have asked a driver to stop texting or using a mobile phone while driving at least once, clearly recognizing the danger distracted driving poses. By comparison, 23% say they have told someone who is impaired not to drive at least once.

Furthermore, survey respondents identify texting as the primary cause of traffic collisions due to distracted driving (58%), followed by placing a call or talking on a hands-free device (19%) and eating while driving (14%).

The survey also found young adults ranging in age from 18 to 34 are much more likely (50%) to check text messages while driving than adults over the age of 35. When asked if stiffer penalties should be introduced to drivers under the age of 25 who are convicted of distracted driving, 67% said ‘yes’.

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What Is Distracted Driving?

Distracted driving could be a driver using a mobile phone while behind the wheel to send or respond to a text or email, make a phone call, or fiddle with the device’s GPS app. It could also be a motorist playing with the infotainment system in their vehicle, eating, or talking to a passenger instead of fully concentrating on driving. In other words, whatever diverts a driver’s attention from operating a vehicle is distracted driving.

However, as it pertains to Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act, distracted driving laws apply to the use of all handheld communication or entertainment devices while behind the wheel. Considering these devices are designed to absorb a person’s attention completely, it’s reasonable to draw the connection between distracted driving and mobile phone use.

While driving in Ontario, including when you are stopped in traffic or at a red light, it is illegal to:

  • Use a mobile phone or other handheld wireless communication devices to text or dial – you can only touch a device to call 911 in an emergency
  • Use a handheld electronic entertainment device such as a tablet or portable gaming console
  • View display screens unrelated to driving like watching a video
  • Program a GPS device except by voice commands

It is permissible to use a hands-free wireless communications device with an earpiece, lapel button, or Bluetooth while driving. You can also view GPS display screens as long as they are built into your vehicle’s dashboard or are securely mounted on the dashboard.

The distracted driving laws in Alberta are similar to Ontario’s, but according to Alberta’s Traffic Safety Act, while driving it is illegal to:

  • Use handheld cellphones
  • Send texts or emails
  • Use electronic devices such as laptop computers, video games, cameras, video entertainment displays and programming portable audio players
  • Enter information on GPS units
  • Read printed materials in the vehicle
  • Write, print, or sketch
  • Groom yourself including brushing and flossing teeth, putting on makeup, curling hair, clipping nails or shaving

How Many Canadians Are Hurt or Killed by a Distracted Driver?

Like the grave threat that impaired driving presents, what’s particularly ominous about a distracted driver is the potentially deadly consequences that individual can have on passengers, pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists.

Here’s an eye-opening fact: one out of every four fatal collisions in Canada involves a distracted driver, says the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF). Moreover, a 2015 TIRF report states car crashes caused by distracted driving equalled or surpassed impaired driving-related crashes in the provinces of Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Manitoba.

Consider the Insurance Bureau of Canada says a distracted driver misses up to 50% of what is happening around them while on the road, and that you are 23 times more likely to get into a car accident if you text while driving. It becomes clear how reckless distracted driving is.

And provincial insurance regulators are noticing. For instance, the Financial Services Regulatory Authority (FSRA) of Ontario is monitoring distracted driving trends. Its findings may affect auto insurance rates in the future since inattentive drivers are more likely to get into car accidents.

Meanwhile, a 2018 white paper published by the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators cites data from the National Collision Database, revealing that 22.5% of serious injuries people suffered in Canada as a result of a collision involved some type of distracted driving.

How Can You Prevent Distracted Driving?

Here are a few things each one of us – drivers and passengers – can do to reduce the threat of distracted driving:

  • Before you drive, set your mobile phone to "airplane mode" so you are not disturbed by it while driving and put it away. Don't touch it even if you're stopped in traffic or at a red light
  • If you are a passenger in a vehicle and the driver interacts or attempts to interact with a mobile device, ask them to stop immediately and concentrate on driving, or tell them to pull over and then use their device
  • Refrain from adjusting your vehicle’s radio or dashboard infotainment system while driving
  • Don't be eating, smoking, grooming yourself, or reading while driving
  • If you have to respond to an email, text, or phone call, pull over to a safe spot, park, and only then use your phone

How Does Distracted Driving Affect Your Car Insurance?

A distracted driving conviction is no laughing matter. The penalties are severe and expensive.

The penalties are particularly harsh in Ontario, where drivers face fines up to $1,000, are hit with three demerit points, and a three-day licence suspension for the first infraction. The penalties increase with repeat infractions.

In other provinces, like Alberta, the penalty for distracted driving is a $287 fine and three demerit points. Currently, Saskatchewan has the stiffest penalties for drivers convicted for distracted driving: a first offence will get you a $580 fine and four demerit points. Additional infractions in the ‘Land of the Living Skies’ leads to vehicle seizures and fines ranging from $1,400 to $2,100.

Insurance is all about managing risk, and distracted driving is extremely risky behaviour. A distracted driving conviction will increase your car insurance by 15% to 25%. Furthermore, an insurer may deny you coverage if you have such a conviction on your driving record, and a conviction remains on your driving record for three years.

Bear these things in mind the next time your phone buzzes while you’re driving. The best way to keep your car insurance affordable and stay safe is to keep your eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, and drive defensively. It also helps to be a conscientious shopper when it comes to auto insurance.

Distracted Driving Penalties by Province

Province or Territory Fine Demerit Points
British Columbia $543 to $888 4
Alberta $287 3
Saskatchewan $580 4
Manitoba $672 5
Ontario $615 to $3,000 3 to 6
Quebec $300 to $600 5
New Brunswick $172.50 3
Nova Scotia $233.95 to $578.95 4
Prince Edward Island $572 to $1,275 5
Newfoundland and Labrador $100 to $400 4
Yukon $500 3
Northwest Territories $322 to $644 3
Nunavut N/A N/A

Source: Insurance Bureau of Canada

Liam Lahey

Liam Lahey is a versatile, seasoned writer and editor. He worked as both a staff writer and freelance writer for many business and technology publications as well as for several newspapers. He writes about home, auto, and travel insurance, and is the media spokesperson for Rates.ca.

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