photo: AnyaBerkut/iStock

Distracted Driving: Hands-Free isn’t Risk-Free

By AMA Staff

Patty Milligan hasn’t always been a model motorist. The Bon Accord resident (and longtime AMA member) spends much of her driving time on rural roads, and admits that typically light traffic has meant she’s sometimes indulged in device use while driving.

“I’ve been sloppy over the years,” she says. “Living in a rural area, it’s very easy to think, ‘No one’s around, what’s the big deal if I make a short call or send a quick text?’”

The big deal is that driving while using mobile phones and other handheld devices is one of the most dangerous things we can do on the road. It’s a risk even in rural areas, where increased driving speeds mean less time to recognize and react to hazards, and greater likelihood of serious injury if a collision occurs.

According to a 2022 AMA survey, 83 percent of respondents considered distracted driving a threat to their personal safety, and nearly a quarter of respondents have used an emergency manoeuvre in the past year to avoid a crash because of someone else’s distracted driving. The majority of respondents agreed that neither they, nor others, can multitask while driving. Yet distracted driving remains the leading cause of collisions in Canada, despite provincial prohibitions that have been in place since 2011.

Nowadays, many new vehicles come with a voice-activated system designed to operate your smartphone—with commands for sending emails and texts, making calls, navigating by GPS, controlling music and more. These systems help you keep both hands on the wheel, but they can still take your concentration off the road.

Marijuana and driving: Taking the high road?

Extensive research, funded in part by CAA, has found that interacting with voice-activated technologies has a major impact on drivers’ mental workload, creating a significant “cognitive distraction.” Your brain can’t fully engage with the complex task of driving while also carrying on a text or voice conversation. Even if your eyes are on the road, you’re actually seeing less and your ability to react to obstacles is impaired.

The study graded a range of possible distractions on a five-point scale. Texting while driving was found to be a category 4, or maximum-risk distraction. Most voice-activated systems scored a 3 or higher. Listening to the radio scored a 1.

The danger of cognitive distraction is compounded by the fact that it can persist for as long as 27 seconds after you’ve sent your message or ended your call.

“A lot can happen on the road during that time. A traffic light could change, a pedestrian could walk across the road or another vehicle could make a sudden stop,” says Jeff Kasbrick, AMA’s vice-president of government and stakeholder relations. “Using your phone when stopped at an intersection is just as dangerous as using it while driving. Intersections are very dangerous places for collisions. Drivers need to pay attention to what’s happening around them.”

Distracted driving gets the lion’s share of the press, but what about inattentive walking?

So how do we convince drivers to put down their devices? AMA believes that legislation and enforcement are important, but education is crucial—especially when it comes to future drivers. “It’s very important to stop people from becoming distracted drivers before they start,” Kasbrick says.

Milligan says her 11-year-old son has played a vital role in keeping her focused on the road. “He’s been taught that, just like drinking and driving, it’s dangerous to use a device while driving. So not only does he make sure I’ve got both hands on the wheel, but now that he’s old enough, he can be the one to send the text saying, ‘We’re on our way.’”

You wouldn’t allow a loved one to drink and drive, so let them know that using a device while at the wheel is just as dangerous. As a passenger you can also:

• Take care of the navigating
• Offer to be the designated texter
• Remind them of Alberta’s distracted-driving penalties—a $287 fine plus three demerit points, or $543 and six demerits if they’re deemed to be distracted and driving recklessly