Toronto car crashes: More distracted drivers, fewer drunk ones

Tom Boland/The Canadian Press. Tom Boland/The Canadian Press

Toronto police are chalking up more collisions to inattentive drivers, collision records show – even as alcohol’s being cited as a factor in fewer crashes.

Between 2000 and 2012, the most recent complete year available, the number of drivers described as “inattentive” grew by 50 per cent, according to collision data obtained by Global News from the city. (The figures for the first few months of 2013 indicate a slight drop)

In that time period, police recorded more than 55,000 drivers involved in collisions as “inattentive.” About a fifth ofthose collisions caused at least some level of injury; 212 resulted in major injuries, and 12 in deaths.

“‘Inattentive’ is a broad category,” Toronto Const. Clint Stibbe says. “Do we have [mobile] devices involved? Absolutely. People are eating food in their cars and doing makeup. I’ve seen people shaving on the road. A person cuts himself shaving, next thing you know, he runs into a car. He’s inattentive.”
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Stibbe could not explain the peak in the data in January, 2005.

Distracted driving has been a criminal charge since February of 2010, when an Ontario ban on driving while using hand-held mobile devices went into effect. Since then, more than 82,000 drivers in Toronto have been charged under the law. The number of drivers charged has remained mostly flat during that time.

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But an officer could record a collision as involving an “inattentive” driver without charging him or her with distracted driving. (A charge of distracted driving involves the drive using a hand-held mobile device, or watching a visible screen; a note of ‘inattentive’  on an accident report can refer to anything that tugs on a driver’s attention other than driving.)

The upward trend could be a combination of more distracted driving and greater awareness of the issue on the part of police making the records, said McMaster University geography professor Niko Yiannakoulias.

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“When police officers, or anybody coding data, become aware of something, their likelihood of coding it that way increases. Inattentiveness, as a diagnosis of a traffic accident, people are just more aware of it. It’s possible that part of it could be explained by just the awareness of mobile devices in accidents,” he said.

“You do have, perhaps, more inattentiveness, because people are using telephones to text and so on, but it could be a mix of both.”

For Ottawa-based traffic expert Barry Wellar, the connection is obvious.

“There are people walking down the sidewalk with their eyes glued to a little screen, texting. They walk into posts, they walk into each other. When that person gets behind the wheel, does he or she stop what they were doing? Not likely.”

Over the same period, the number of accidents involving drivers police say had consumed alcohol has fallen steadily – down by 37% between 2001 and 2012.

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The trend parallels a long-term decline in drunk driving charges.

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“I think it’s considered one of the at least partly successful behaviour-modification campaigns,” Yiannakoulias said. “I don’t know that it’s universally successful. It’s become a cultural taboo – it doesn’t mean that people don’t do it. There has been a cultural shift there.”

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But police are seeing more drivers on illegal drugs, Stibbe warns – something that can also result in an impaired driving charge.

“Each generation has, I guess, their Achilles heel, which is what they’re more prone to use. Same thing with the drugs or the alcohol – when an individual has been told over and over again not to operate a motor vehicle when impaired by alcohol, they think ‘drugs aren’t alcohol,’ and don’t realize that they’re putting themselves and others at risk. Impairment is impairment.”

Toronto police reports show that drug-related impairment was a factor in 231 accidents since 2000, compared to 11,880 for alcohol.

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Wellar wants to see distracted driving stigmatized the same way that drunk driving has been.

“There was an attitudinal adjustment [around drunk driving], and that’s what needs to happen with cell phones and texting. It took a long time for the attitude around drunk driving to change, but you can’t wait that long with texting.”

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