Ask OPP Sgt. Dave Woodford about the dangers of driving while using a cellphone and he'll tell you about the accident scene that still haunts him: the driver was dead, with his cellphone right next to him. His girlfriend – who he'd been talking to at the time – was still on the line.
These cases, Sgt. Woodford said, are becoming increasingly common as law enforcement officials struggle to deal with the problem of distracted driving. With the exception of Nunavut, every province and territory in Canada now has a ban on the use of hand-held devices while driving. Many U.S. states, including New York and California, have similar legislation in place.
Still, over a quarter of people killed on OPP-patrolled highways so far this year (47 out of 177 road fatalities) have been the result of "inattentiveness" while driving. And of those, Sgt. Woodford added, the majority of those cases involved texting or talking on the phone while driving.
"A lot of people are trying to hide it," Sgt. Woodford said, referring to the ban. "Their eyes are off the road. Within three or four seconds, you've travelled across the length of a football field, and a lot can happen. Someone can cut in front of you. You slam on the brakes. Suddenly, you're in the guard rail."
Since Ontario's ban was passed in 2009, distracted driving has crept up as a cause for road fatalities, from 19 per cent in 2010 to 26 per cent so far this year. According to the CAA, drivers who are text messaging are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash. Drivers who talk on their cellphone, meanwhile, are about four times more likely to crash.
Part of the problem is that, unless distracted driving is clearly affecting behaviour – swerving in and out of lanes, or cutting others off – there's little officers can do. Police can charge a driver for using a cellphone, or with careless driving if they're driving dangerously, or even criminal negligence causing death if there's an accident.
But for everyday distractions that make drivers three times more likely to crash, according to the CAA – putting on makeup, or reading a book – there's not much police can do.
"Everybody's talking about it, so I think the excuse of 'oh, we weren't aware,' is gone now," Sgt. Woodford said, adding that there's no age group or gender that's guiltier than others. "For a lot of people, it's a habit. And it's hard to break that habit."
Distracted driving has even surpassed impaired driving as a cause of road fatalities on OPP-patrolled roads, part of the reason why officers are gearing up for an upcoming Labour Day weekend blitz against it.
"Most people would not get into a vehicle with an impaired driver and they are at as much risk in the presence of a distracted driver as an impaired driver," said Chief Superintendent Don Bell, the OPP's highway safety commander, in a news release announcing the blitz.
The campaign against distracted driving has received much attention recently, with celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Justin Bieber taking up the cause. Earlier this month, German filmmaker Werner Herzog released a short documentary, From One Second To The Next, exploring the dangers of texting and driving.