ICBC and police exaggerate cellphone driving fatality numbers
Distracted driving. Sometimes it seems that’s all we ever hear about these days from police, government and ICBC. We are told that there are thousands of drivers out there ripping around with their heads firmly buried in the electronic devices on their laps, causing chaos and countless injuries and deaths wherever they strike.
…deaths involving the use of electronic devices are the easiest to track. Evidence of using electronic devices is almost always stored digitally.
One Motor Vehicle Act violation for using your phone may trigger a driving prohibition. Get two cell phone tickets and you can expect a lengthy driving prohibition. The message is clear — use your phone behind the wheel and the government will take your licence away and force you to pay financial penalties. “Trust us,” they say. “It’s all in the name of public safety.”
We didn’t buy it.
Where were all these drivers who have killed due to cell phone use? Why don’t we see charges being laid? Why aren’t the families of those lost to distracted driving speaking? Why aren’t there Mothers Against Distracted Driving advocacy groups popping up?
What we’ve long suspected is that distracted driving, specifically the offence of using an electronic device behind the wheel, is just a cash grab. It’s a cash grab designed to look like a tough-on-crime approach to combat a dangerous driving behaviour. The reality, however, is that the data clearly shows driving while using a cell phone does not multiply the risks as claimed.
Authorities in BC such as ICBC claim 78 people die per year due to distracted driving. They imply that these numbers are in all respects tied to cell phone use. But the truth is the number of cases where someone is seriously injured or killed in a large city such as Vancouver due to using an electronic device each year is almost non-existent.
Fatalities due to drivers using electronic devices are very few
We’ve got the numbers to prove it. The BC Coroner’s Service does not report a single death in Vancouver due to a driver using an electronic device between 2008 and 2016.
How do we know? We went directly to the source. BC’s Coroners Service investigates all unnatural deaths in British Columbia to determine, among other things, the cause of death.
Given the importance of distracted driving to law enforcement, it makes sense the Coroners Service, as our government’s medical examiners, have been tracking every single case where the use of an electronic device such as a cellphone was a factor in traffic fatalities.
We asked them to provide a count of every traffic fatality where the use of an electronic device was a factor between Jan. 1, 2008 and Dec. 31, 2016.
It didn’t take long for them to get back to us. There were only 14 cases in all of British Columbia, and none in Vancouver, the most populous city. See for yourself.
But doesn’t ICBC claim there are 78 fatalities due to distracted driving annually?
Yes, and we’re not saying ICBC is fudging the numbers here, but there’s a clear difference between “distracted driving” and “using an electronic device” while driving. The government, police and ICBC like to lump them into one to support their narrative of just how dangerous using cellphones are behind the wheel. But that’s hogwash.
ICBC’s fatal crash statistics are publicly available to see. Helpfully, they’ve also provided the source of their data. It’s called the Traffic Accident System, maintained by Injury Research BC, which obtains forms completed by police officers at collision scenes for their data. Since every fatal traffic accident is nearly guaranteed to have police attendance, the information should be pretty accurate.
It’s this data here that suggests, on average, there are 78 distracted driving deaths in British Columbia. But there’s one caveat. Their definition of “distracted driving” includes far more than just using a cellphone behind the wheel.
From the TAS Glossary:
“Evidence that the driver was using a communication/video device, was inattentive or was internally/externally distracted.”
It’s as if the police, ICBC and the government completely ignored this definition.
Perhaps this was on purpose? Because for the average BC driver, when you hear police and ICBC give warnings about distracted driving, the implication is always to put your phone down.
It’s what law enforcement campaigns are focused on. It’s about the only thing mentioned in ICBC’s page on distracted driving. The narrative has gone so far that BC Government now has the idea of giving insurance discounts to people who disable their phones while driving.
Law enforcement authorities such as the RCMP even publicly claim that texting will give you a 23-times increased risk of crashing.
But then you see more evidence of misleading messaging. All you have to do is check where RCMP got their numbers, you’ll see they chose a study that examined truck drivers of long-haul vehicles, a group of drivers fundamentally different from the average commuter likely to be caught on their phone while waiting at a red light.
Sadly, it’s just another example of police and government fear-mongering.
Daydreaming far more dangerous than using a cellphone while driving
We think it’s important to consider what distracted driving means. Sure, it could mean using a cellphone or electronic device, but when the definition includes any internal or external distraction, or any evidence that the driver was being inattentive, the number of cases seem enormous.
According to the Coroners data, there were 14 electronic-device deaths over the course of 2010 to 2016 (there were no deaths in 2008 and 2009), or about two deaths on average, per year. Subtract that from ICBC’s 78 distracted-driving fatality figure, and you start to see that the vast majority of these deaths had nothing to do with using an electronic device at all.
Perhaps there was evidence the driver was stressed, had a lot on their mind and was inattentive. Perhaps there was evidence the driver was eating a cheeseburger while driving. Perhaps the driver dropped their cigarette on the seat, and was trying to retrieve it. Perhaps the family pet suddenly jumped into the front seat. There are so many possibilities.
Critics might say that the Coroners data can hardly be conclusive. Not all cases of deaths related to the use of electronic devices can be properly tracked.
We would argue that deaths involving the use of electronic devices are the easiest to track. Evidence of using electronic devices is almost always stored digitally.
An example would be text messages, calls or Internet history with specific time stamps. Or a police officer noticing a video left playing on a person’s screen in the aftermath of the crash. Perhaps there’s witness testimony from passengers or passersby, who may have noticed the person had their head down or was glancing at their device before the crash.
We’re not saying using cellphones behind the wheel is safe
There is an element of danger. We recognize it. As far as we can tell, two people die in BC each year because of it. Those are two deaths each year that a little education may have prevented. What we are saying, though, is that the level of enforcement and the expense that government has put into this is way beyond what this offence deserves.
Do not use an electronic device while driving. It’s the law.
And we even agree that using your cell phone while driving poses a safety risk. It’s just not as much as risk as the government and the police are saying. It’s just not the cause of injury and death that the government is convinced we must believe. It’s just not enough reason to place increasingly steep penalties on British Columbian drivers.
We shared what we learned with local media and enjoyed some very interesting conversations. Here are links to some of their stories.