It’s National Safe Driving Week in Canada (December 1 to 7). The Canada Safety Council’s annual campaign since the 1950s focuses on preventing impaired and distracted driving and safe driving tips throughout the winter.

Distracted driving remains a grave threat to road safety in Canada, and it appears to be on the rise. According to RATESDOTCA’s survey data*, when respondents were asked what they think is the most significant cause of motor vehicular traffic deaths, 40% of respondents said distracted driving, 33% said impaired driving, and 27% didn’t know.

When comparing our survey data in 2019 to 2020 that asked Canadians about their behaviours behind the wheel, here’s what we found:

  • 51% of drivers check text messages while waiting at a stoplight, which is a staggering increase of 10% from one year ago when 41% of drivers engaged in this behaviour. Younger drivers (aged 18 to 24) are more likely to engage in this behaviour (71%) than drivers 25 and older (48%).
  • 30% check text messages while driving (a 4% increase from 2019 when 26% of drivers did this). Drivers aged 18-34 (50%) are more likely to text while they drive than other age groups.

Other hazardous behaviours Canadians are engaging in behind the wheel includes:

  • 42% engage in phone calls while they drive (a 2% increase from 40% the previous year).
  • 60% think it’s okay to use a phone hands-free while driving (up by 13% from 47% the previous year). It is legal to use hands-free wireless communications devices with an earpiece, lapel button, or Bluetooth. Interestingly, 19% think placing or taking a call on a hands-free phone while driving is a big contributor to collisions.
  • 60% use GPS apps while they drive (an increase of 5% from 55% the year before). It is legal to view GPS display screens if they are built into your vehicle’s dashboard or securely mounted on the dashboard, but it is illegal to program them while driving except by voice command.
  • 5% of drivers aged 25 and older watch videos while driving (up by 2% from 3% in 2019). Disturbingly, 18% of young drivers (18- to 24-years-old) watch videos while they’re driving, which is a 14% increase from 2019.

It is illegal to interact with a mobile phone or any handheld electronic device while behind the wheel of a vehicle, even if you’re stopped at a traffic light or stop sign. The only exception is if you need to call 9-1-1 because of an emergency.

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Respondents to the RATESDOTCA survey believe texting while driving is most likely to contribute to a collision (58%), followed by making a phone call (19%), eating (14%), and drinking a beverage or using a GPS mapping system (8% each). All of these behaviours are risky and can lead to a car accident.

Meanwhile, data from Transport Canada finds distraction was a contributing factor in 21% of fatal collisions and 27% of collisions resulting in serious injury in Canada in 2016. If that isn’t enough to raise alarm, consider the financial costs to your car insurance premium, which could sharply increase if you’re convicted of driving a vehicle while distracted. Insurers are taking measures to limit their losses and drivers with a distracted driving conviction can expect premiums to increase by at least 15% to 25% if insurers don’t deny them coverage outright.

Breaking the distracted driving habit

What is distracted driving? In essence, it is anything that diverts a motorist’s attention away from driving. That could involve eating, drinking, grooming, smoking or reaching for items in your vehicle. Though these actions are not part of Ontario’s distracted driving law, you can be charged with careless or dangerous driving for any of them. In terms of distracted driving, Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act applies to the use of all handheld communication or entertainment devices while behind the wheel.

Mobile devices are designed to be attention grabbers. Constantly checking our phones may be attributed to the so-called ‘fear of missing out’, which is the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing. Repeatedly checking a phone for notifications can become an involuntary habit.

For drivers, breaking that habit may require taking steps such as:

  • Setting your smartphone to ‘do not disturb’ mode and storing the device in the vehicle’s passenger compartment or the trunk.
  • If you must respond to an email, text, or phone call, pull over to a safe spot, park, and only then engage with your device.
  • If you are a passenger in a vehicle and the driver interacts or attempts to interact with a mobile device, insist they stop immediately.
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What are the consequences of a distracted driving conviction?

Given the prevalence of driver distraction, governments have established laws with serious penalties for drivers convicted of the offence.

The fines and 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. That infraction will stay on your driving record for three years from the date of conviction. The penalties increase with repeat infractions.

For novice drivers with a G1 or G2 licence, the fines are the same. Though no demerit points will be issued, novice drivers will face longer suspension times:

  • 30-day licence suspension for a first conviction.
  • 90-day licence suspension for a second conviction.
  • A third conviction will result in your licence being cancelled and removal from Ontario’s Graduated Licensing System.

Drivers in other provinces and territories face different penalties.

What to do if you have a distracted driving conviction

If you have been convicted of distracted driving and are concerned about how it will affect your car insurance premium, here are two things you can do:

  • Talk to your broker. Have a conversation with your broker or insurance agent about your predicament. Your existing insurer knows your driving record and claims history, and they may be able to get you an affordable rate.
  • Shop your rate. Though a distracted driving conviction is likely to increase your insurance bill, it never hurts to comparison shop for rates to find the lowest premium you can. Some insurers may be more forgiving to first-time offenders than others. Comparing premiums and policies using RATESDOTCA’s free-to-use quoting tool will net you quotes from more than 30 insurance companies.

* The second annual distracted driving survey was conducted by Forum Research between February 3 to February 8, 2020 and polled 1,173 respondents across 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 RATESDOTCA.

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