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Safely Distracted? Canadians Contradict Themselves in Latest Distracted Driving Survey

You are not the only safe driver on the road

March 30, 2021
7 mins
A driver holds a cellphone to hear ear with his shoulder and a coffee cup in one hand and the wheel of his car in the other

“When I do these things, they are safe, but when other people do those things, they are deadly.”

If that sounds like you trying to justify sending a ‘quick’ text or checking ‘just a few’ notifications while driving, you are not alone. According to the results of a Forum Research survey conducted in March 2021 on behalf of RATESDOTCA, one in four Canadian drivers (25%) admit to making phone calls while driving without using any hands-free or Bluetooth options.

Surprisingly, large minorities of Canadian drivers admitted to regularly engaging in even more dangerous distracted driving behaviours. One in eight (13%) said they regularly text or send instant messages from their phone while driving. And one in 30 might sound like a fairly low figure, but that was the proportion of drivers (3%) who admitted to watching videos on their phone while driving. Out of all the survey respondents, more than one in four (26%) admitted to engaging in distracted driving behaviours on a regular basis.

Even more astounding is that roughly half of the drivers who admitted to those behaviours also said they consider them safe: 49% for drivers who make calls, 43% for drivers who text and 57% for drivers who watch videos.

(On that last point, consider a little scary math: There are 35,742,412 registered vehicles in Canada, meaning 3% or 1,072,272 are being driven by people who watch videos while operating their vehicle. Of those roughly one million cars, 57% or 611,195 are being driven by people who believe it is safe to be watching a video while simultaneously operating a motor vehicle. That is comparable to every single car in cities as large as Winnipeg or Ottawa!

Distracted driving behaviour % respondents who engage in these behaviours % respondents who engage in these behaviours considers them safe
Eat or drink coffee/water 79 78
Make phone calls hands-free (earpiece, lapel button, wrist watch or Bluetooth) 65 80
Reach for an object 56 57
Use geo navigational apps on an unmounted hand-held device 40 68
Make phone calls on a hand-held device 25 49
Listen to audio books and podcasts on a hand-held device 22 79
Text or instant message on a hand-held device 13 43
Watch a video on a hand-held device 3 57

The same survey also found Canadian drivers consider distracted driving to be a greater cause of death on Canadian roads than impaired driving at 47% versus 34%.

That last result is downright perplexing. The only way it can be squared with such high proportions of drivers claiming distracted behaviours are safe, at least to me, is that millions of Canadians must subscribe to the “I can text and drive safely but other people cannot” stereotype. However, I welcome other potential explanations in the comments section below.


Results differ greater by province (and in one instance, by gender)

Easily one of the most beautiful drives you can take anywhere in the world is heading eastbound along the TransCanada Highway from Vancouver to Calgary. Once you pass Golden, B.C. and cross into Alberta, however, be warned that your risk of encountering someone texting while driving nearly triples from 7% in B.C. to a chart-topping 19% in Alberta.

Province % of drivers who text/instant message on a hand-held device
National Average 13
Alberta 19
Atlantic 16
Quebec 15
Manitoba/Saskatchewan 12
Ontario 11
British Columbia 7

Quebec deserves to be called out for pulling up the national average of drivers (25%) who make calls without a hands-free option. Fully 36% of drivers in La Belle Province said they regularly take their eyes off the road (and at least one hand off the wheel) to initiate or receive a phone call.

No other province or region in Canada is even close, and the rest are all below the 25% national average. Ontario was a distant second, with 23% of drivers admitting to making non-hands-free calls. Alberta tied with the Atlantic region for third place at 22%, British Columbia was lower at 18%, but ultimately Manitoba and Saskatchewan were the most impressive with only 12% of drivers making calls.

Put another way: Quebec drivers are fully three times more likely to make calls without any hands-free or Bluetooth options than drivers in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Province % of drivers who make calls on a hand-held device
National Average 25
Quebec 36
Ontario 23
Alberta 22
Atlantic 22
British Columbia 18
Manitoba/Saskatchewan 12

Men are also much worse offenders than women when watching videos while driving (remember the scary math above?) Remember, 3% of all drivers watch videos while driving but by gender 5% of male respondents do compared to 2% of women. That means only one out of every 50 female drivers regularly watches videos while operating a vehicle, compared to one out of every 20 male drivers doing the same thing.

Distracted driving behaviour % of male respondents who engage in these behaviours % of female respondents who engage in these behaviours % of non-binary respondents who engage in these behaviours
Listen to audiobooks or podcasts on a handheld device 25 19 32
Make phone calls on a handheld device 26 23 23
Text or instant message on a handheld device 14 12 18
Watch a video on a hand-held device 5 2 5
Objecting when a passenger asks you not to engage in distracted driving behaviours 17 9 14

Passengers should feel more comfortable calling out distracted drivers (76% of drivers say they wouldn’t mind!)

The vast majority of drivers are uncomfortable when, as a passenger, they witness the driver engage in common distracted behaviours such as making calls or sending texts. More than eight in 10 respondents said those activities made them either ‘somewhat’ (30%) or ‘very’ (51%) uncomfortable.

Despite such widespread levels of discomfort, close to half (43%) of passengers who noticed distracted driving behaviour at least once did not attempt to tell the driver to stop. The disparity suggests passengers fear drivers will not react well if they are rebuked, but those passengers should note that three in four drivers across Canada said they wouldn’t object if their passenger asked them not to engage in distracted driving habits.

Distracted driving can bring (unexpected and ongoing) expenses

Most people only think of the upfront cost of tickets, fines and penalties that come from being pulled over for distracted driving by law enforcement. Those can be substantial, ranging as high as $5,000 depending on where the offence is committed in Canada.

However, car insurance providers do not look kindly upon a distracted driving conviction. Drivers that end up with a distracted driving conviction on their record (which remains there for at least three years) can expect a 15-to-25% hike in their car insurance premiums as a result. If the charge involved a collision, that could lead to at least 50% higher premiums. So, if the risk of injury and death is not enough to convince you not to engage in distracted driving habits, perhaps the cold, hard cash implications will.

Distracted Driving defined

Anything that takes the driver’s attention away from operating the vehicle is considered distracted driving. While texting or watching videos account for the most egregious examples, everything from changing the radio station to reaching for a cup of coffee also qualifies.

Most provinces have specific distracted driving laws among their transportation rules, and Alberta specifies which behaviours that qualify as distracted driving and Ontario’s distracted driving laws are built around electronic devices.

About the survey

The Third Annual Distracted Driving survey was conducted by Forum Research between March 10 and 12, 2021 and polled 1001 respondents across Canada. The sample's age ranged from 18 to 65+ years old. The margin of error for this study is +/-2.5%, 19 times out of 20. Respondents have a driver's licence. Survey questions were presented via telephone, and respondents provided answers through their mobile device or home phone touchpad.

Jameson Berkow

Jameson Berkow is an experienced financial reporter, editor, and broadcaster who has held senior roles with the Financial Post, BNN Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail. He previously worked as the managing editor at RATESDOTCA.

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