One of the more effective public service ads to come out in recent years was put together by Volkswagen.
Informed of the rising prevalence of distracted driving in China, the car company decided to put together a video that spoke to the issue. It begins with unsuspecting moviegoers at a theatre in Hong Kong settling into their seats. The lights dim and the screen shows a car zooming down an empty road. Music blares inside the vehicle.
A technician behind the curtains at the theatre sends out a location-based text message to everyone in the theatre carrying a mobile device. You see the patrons suddenly looking down, distracted. As they check their phones, the car swerves off the road and crashes. It’s dramatic and has a telling effect on everyone in the theatre.
Across the screen roll the words: “Mobile use is now the leading cause of death behind the wheel.” It’s been viewed more than 19 million times on YouTube.
We’re seeing like-minded ads here in Canada. And in the coming years we will see far more. Distracted driving is the new drunk driving.
It’s only been in the past few years that authorities have sounded the alarm about the toll side-tracked drivers are exacting. This week, the B.C. government urged citizens to take to Twitter and share their commitment to focus strictly on driving when behind the wheel using the hashtag #justdrive.
Of the 269 people killed in motor vehicle accidents last year in the province, speed was a contributing factor in 78 of the deaths, while distracted driving had a role in 77 and alcohol and drugs a part in 63. Ontario Provincial Police have said that distracted driving is the No. 1 killer on the roads in that province. In 2013, it was responsible for 78 accident-related deaths, compared to 57 from impaired driving.
Distracted driving includes everything from texting to reading GPS instructions to talking on your in-car phone system. It could be turning around to respond to the needs of a crying child in the back seat.
Provincial governments are beginning to ramp up penalties associated with this scourge. Most are now deducting points from drivers’ licences as well as imposing fines. But those punishments will likely have to get much harsher before they have an impact.
There’s one thing we know for certain about this problem: It’s vastly under-reported because it’s difficult to catch people in the act. Determining the role it plays in fatalities, for instance, is arduous and sometimes involves going to the courts to get permission to search cellphone records. Still, we know it’s is pervasive.
“You ask a taxi driver what they observe and they’ll tell you they’ll see [people talking on the phone while driving] 10 times a day or more,” says Jeff Walker, vice-president, public affairs for the Canadian Automobile Association. I had to chuckle when he told me this; in my experience, taxi drivers are among the worst cellphone offenders on the road.
There’s little question that distracted driving is a menace, but it’s going to take a radical societal shift to address the problem. Currently, it’s not viewed in the same realm as drunk driving, despite the carnage it’s causing. Rather, it’s seen as an innocent offence of which we’ve all been guilty.
Admittedly, I’ve been known to take perverse pride in being able to multitask while behind the wheel myself, in the same way some of us used to boast about driving home drunk when we were young. And then, one day, we woke up and realized it was nothing to be proud of.
Still, in this intensely wired world, it’s going to be difficult to disconnect. Car companies can make all the brilliant public service ads they want about the problem, but they’ll continue to turn out vehicles with more built-in distractions than ever.
It took a couple of decades, and some intense ad campaigns that made us all feel uncomfortable, before the war on drunk driving took a positive turn. It still hasn’t been won, but drunk driving has been stigmatized and turned into a serious crime. The fight against distracted driving may take just as long before we realize it’s every bit as bad.