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Decline in distracted driving screeches to a halt in B.C., new survey finds

Public support for three alternative penalties is up markedly, writes Mario Canseco
Distracted driving persists in British Columbia, with large proportions of the province saying they've recently seen drivers on their phones

Last year, when Research Co. and Glacier Media studied the perceptions of British Columbians on distracted driving, it seemed that things were going in the right direction. Fewer than half of the province’s residents (46 per cent) told us that they had witnessed a

a driver texting or talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving over the preceding four weeks – a nine-point reduction from our original survey in 2020 (55 per cent).

What a difference a year makes. In this case, not a very positive one. In our latest survey, 62 per cent of British Columbians report seeing a driver talking on a hand-held cell phone or texting while driving in the past month, up 16 points since 2022. What appeared to be a downward trend has summarily stopped.

There is a region that appears to be clearly ahead of all when it comes to this banned practice. More than four in five residents of the Fraser Valley (82 per cent) saw a distracted driver in the past four weeks. No other area of British Columbia comes close, but majorities of respondents in Northern B.C. (66 per cent), Vancouver Island (63 per cent), Southern B.C. (59 per cent) and Metro Vancouver (57 per cent) also saw drivers rely on their hand-held cell phones when they were supposed to be focusing exclusively on the road.

Over the past five years, more than 140,000 tickets have been issued by police forces across British Columbia for distracted driving. This, in a province that has had a law in the books since 2010. Almost three in 10 fatal crashes in the province are related to drivers who were using their smartphones, playing music inside the car too loudly, smoking, vaping, reading or eating.

A first-time infraction for distracted driving would result in a total fine of $582, which includes a $368 ticket and four penalty points (equivalent to $214) in a driver’s insurance penalty point premium. While this might seem like a significant sum – and a deterrent for those who are aching to figure out why their smartphone beeped – British Columbians are not entirely convinced.

We continue to see a majority of the province’s residents (54 per cent, down two points) thinking that the current guidelines to punish distracted drivers are correct. However, almost three in 10 (29 per cent, up five points) believe the current fines are too low, and 12 per cent (down three points) consider them too high.

Support for higher fines is particularly popular with residents of Vancouver Island and Southern B.C. (36 per cent and 35 per cent respectively), as well as among British Columbians aged 55 and over (36 per cent).

Public backing for the three alternative penalties we have asked about since 2020 is up markedly. More than half of British Columbians (56 per cent, up four points) would consent to suspending drivers caught emailing, texting, or using an electronic device in British Columbia for a year – a proportion that includes 59 per cent of those in Metro Vancouver.

More than three in five British Columbians (62 per cent, up seven points) would agree to double the first-time fine for distracted drivers to $1,240. A four-digit ticket is welcomed by 68 per cent of BC New Democratic Party (NDP) voters in 2020, as well as 60 per cent of those who cast ballots for the then-BC Liberals or the BC Green Party in the last provincial election.

The most popular measure continues to be seizing the electronic devices of repeat offenders. Just over two thirds of British Columbians (67 per cent, up three points) think this would be the correct decision. This is a tool that sees a dramatic age gap. Support for its implementation is highest among British Columbians aged 55 and over (79 per cent) and drops among those aged 35 to 54 (60 per cent) and those aged 18 to 34 (54 per cent).

In 2022, we had some hope about the possible eradication of distracted driving in British Columbia. This year, it is clear that the banned practice has not disappeared from our roads. More residents are noticing this problem now than in years past. At the same time, the appetite for tougher action to finally stop those who are not following the law has never been higher – and this includes most supporters of all three major provincial political parties.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from June 10 to June 12, 2023, among 800 adults in British Columbia. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in British Columbia. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.