The statistics for 2020 haven’t been finalized yet, but the preliminary data on distracted driving-related accidents remains pretty shocking.
According to Tyler McMurchy, the manager of media relations for Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI), distracted driving, driver distraction or inattention contributed to more than 3,000 collisions last year, which resulted in approximately 600 injuries and 22 deaths in Saskatchewan.
"Those are just the collisions that get reported to us. Of course, every month, police issue hundreds of tickets related to distracted driving, either for cell phone use … or the other offence would be called driving without due care and attention. So when you total those numbers up, on average, we saw about 520 tickets issued per month across Saskatchewan by police for one of those two offences," McMurchy said.
While the numbers still seem outrageous, SGI has seen a decrease in the amount of these kinds of offences over the past few years. For example, in 2019, they averaged 838 distracted driving/driving without due care tickets per month.
To assess the situation with distracted driving in the province, SGI also looks at the number of fatalities, injuries and collisions, and there was some good news with that data as well.
"We have seen those numbers trending downward. They can fluctuate a bit year to year, but we have seen those coming down," McMurchy said.
McMurchy said there is more awareness about the problem now. The significant increase in penalties for these offences that occurred last year also improved the situation.
"Penalties increased in 2020, which I think got a lot of people's attention and may have influenced some people's behaviour when it comes to deciding not to pick up their phone while they're behind the wheel."
An increase in penalties became an important factor in battling distracted driving. And while not everyone will react to this as a reason to change behaviour, for quite a few people, costly charges became a weighty argument.
"For some people, the prospect of getting a $580 ticket for having their phone in their hand, is something they just don't want to risk. So absolutely I think the increased penalties did play a role," McMurchy said.
The increase in penalties was first announced in November of 2019, but it didn't take effect until February of 2020. And even when the changes were first announced, SGI did see an immediate drop in the number of tickets that police were handing out on average per month.
"I don't think that's a result of less enforcement, I think it's just a result of people understanding that the tickets are very serious and the consequences are not worth that (moment when) you're going to look at your phone when you're driving. And that's good because that momentary look can be very dangerous. If you are driving, you're operating a motor vehicle, you need to give that your full and undivided attention," McMurchy said.
A lot of focus is always on cell phones as the main source of distraction, but by no means is it the only thing that may distract drivers. There is no way for the law to cover everything that may potentially turn into a distraction, but driving without due care and attention is an offence. Driving while smoking, eating, interacting with passengers and other presumably minor things will not necessarily result in a charge, but if they distract the driver enough, they will be viewed as an offence. McMurchy said most police officers that have ever worked in traffic enforcement, have "ridiculous" examples of other things that some drivers were distracted by, such as "reading a book, or eating a bowl of cereal, or filling out paperwork while they're driving" and these things should not happen.
There is no law regulating where animals should be in a vehicle, but McMurchy said that if they are not transported properly, they might easily become a distraction.
"We highly recommend that you do restrain your animal in the vehicle with a specifically designed harness that works with the seatbelt system in your vehicle or putting them in a kennel or a crate just to minimize the distraction that comes from an animal moving freely throughout the cab of your vehicle, sitting on your lap or getting in between the driver and the steering wheel," McMurchy said.
He added that not only can animals be a distraction, but if they are not properly restrained they are also at higher risk of injuries or death if a vehicle suddenly stops or gets in an accident.
"An airbag can severely injure or kill an animal that is in the front seat. It's not designed to protect those animals, it's designed to protect a properly restrained driver," McMurchy said.
And even though people still often feel an urge to do something else while driving, McMurchy reminded that all the distractions can wait.
"With distracted driving, there's no text message or selfie, or Instagram story, that's worth a $580 ticket."
He also reminded the public that penalties implemented for distracted driving in 2020 remain in place and they progress if drivers keep breaking the law.
"Your first ticket for distracted driving is $580, and the penalties escalate for repeat offences. If you get a second cell phone ticket within one year of being convicted, not only does the ticket go up to $1,400, but you will also have your vehicle impounded for a week. And if you get a third ticket within one year of being convicted, and this does happen on rare occasions … that third ticket will be $2,100 and another seven days of vehicle impoundment. And with every distracted driving ticket, there's four demerits," McMurchy said.