A Harm Reduction Agenda for Distracted Driving

Commentary, Transportation, Steve Lafleur

All Canadian provinces have introduced legislation to punish people for using cellphones while driving. But, the legislation doesn’t appear to be working. The number of distracted driving tickets suggests that people just aren’t listening. Rather than ratcheting up fines, provincial governments should embrace a harm reduction approach to distracted driving.

Driving while using a cell phone increases the likelihood of collisions, though legislation hasn’t proven effective at mitigating potential harms. A recent Frontier Centre backgrounder pointed out that there is a positive correlation between distracted driving legislation and collisions. Jurisdictions that have introduced distracted driving legislation have seen an increase in collisions relative to similar jurisdictions that have not. This relationship seems counterintuitive, though driver reactions don’t always match legislative intentions.

Distracted driving legislation pushes many drivers to text or phone from below dashboard rather than at eye level, which takes both eyes off the road. Moreover, since police officers often catch drivers texting or dialing at stop lights – a relatively safe activity –drivers are tempted to dial while driving instead. The greatest danger isn’t holding a phone. The biggest problem is that it adds to the driver’s cognitive load. Studies show that even hands free devices are equally as dangerous for that reason. More mental distractions means more mistakes. That is part of why passengers are the biggest cause of distracted driving collisions by a wide margin (cell phones account for a small percentage).

Another related concern is that the additional distraction of watching out for police officers could add to drivers’ cognitive load. We’re all familiar with the paranoia induced by cruisers hiding on the side of the road attempting to catch speeders off guard. We now see officers posing as panhandlers to catch distracted drivers. The additional fear among violators likely causes further distraction.

A more effective strategy for dealing with distracted driving requires a multi-pronged effort that takes into consideration how drivers actually behave, and attempts to reduce the associated harm. Punishment should not be the first resort.
First, is more effective education. People need to understand the potential danger on a visceral level. A recent short film by Werner Herzog provides an excellent example. Showing that film in high school classes could be part of an educational strategy.
As part of that education strategy we should teach students how to use their phones prudently. People won’t always pull over to make important phone calls or to get directions. And, merging back into traffic at 100km/h can be exceptionally dangerous.

Second, we should be embracing technology.  Driverless cars may be decades away, but there are many automated safety features being incorporated into new cars that help prevent collisions. For instance, many cars now have forward collision avoidance systems that alert drivers when they are in danger of rear ending another driver. A related feature that will likely be standard in a few years is autonomous breaking systems that can override the driver in case of an imminent collision. Human error can come from all sorts of distractions and misjudgements. Automobile technology can do more to eliminate them than legislation. That will require consumers to trust technology that might currently seem scary.

Finally, better road design needs to be part of the solution. There are many road design elements that we could improve upon to reduce collisions, but two specific examples can help mitigate risks related to cellular phones. Median rumble strips are the first example. Drivers are familiar with shoulder rumble strips which give them a rude awakening if they are veering off the road. Studies have shown that similar rumble strips are effective at reducing collisions on two way streets by warning people if they are drifting into the oncoming lane. Additionally, wider highway shoulder lanes can make it easier for people to pull over if they absolutely need to call or text and make it easier to merge back into traffic.

Unfortunately, governments are often prone to knee-jerk reactions to deal with dangerous behaviour. Rather than succumbing to that temptation, governments should take a harm reduction approach.