Is texting the new impaired driving?

15 November 2021

Talking on your phone. Reaching for a water bottle. Adjusting the temperature. All these activities are a distraction if you’re driving. And distraction can be just as risky as driving while impaired, according to a Traffic Injury Research Foundation study released in 2021.

Almost 500 people in Canada died from a crash involving alcohol use in 2017. Virtually the same number died in crashes involving distracted driving. (2017 is the most recent year for which fatal crash data is available.)

The statistics suggest that a distracted driver can function — or malfunction — in much the same way as a drunk driver does. Both have impaired capabilities and judgment. Both have the potential to cause serious injury to themselves and others on the road.

The statistics also show that distracted driving is increasing. Phone use is one of the most common distractions — ICBC says 40% of BC drivers admit to doing it at least some of the time. ICBC also says you’re five times more likely to crash if you’re using your hand-held phone.

The Foundation study used its own motor vehicle fatality data base as well as self-reported driver behaviour surveys to reach the following conclusions:

  • Self-reported driving after drinking decreased in 2020 compared with 2010 while self-reported use of mobile phones (hands-free, hand-held, or texting) increased.

Self-reported behaviour among drivers

2010 2020
Driving after drinking 24% 12%
Mobile phone use 35% 56%
  • The trend in self-reported behaviour also mirrors the trend in traffic fatalities. Alcohol-related impaired driving as a causal factor in crashes is decreasing over time. Motor vehicle deaths due to distraction are increasing.
  • Male drivers were more likely to be killed in a motor vehicle crash due to alcohol impairment while female drivers were more likely to be killed due to distracted driving. Almost the same number of women were killed due to both causes.

2017 crash fatalities from alcohol impairment, by gender

Fatalities involving drinking % of all crash fatalities involving alcohol impairment
Male 256 32%
Female 43 20%

2017 crash fatalities from distracted driving, by gender

Fatalities involving distracted driving % of all crash fatalities involving alcohol impairment
Male 116 16%
Female 42 22%
  • Most alcohol-related crashes resulting in death took place between 6 p.m. and 3 a.m. Most distraction-related fatal crashes took place between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.

The Foundation cautions that its conclusions are limited by its database and the limited data about distraction-related motor vehicle crashes.

The study doesn’t identify whether the people who were killed in these crashes were driving for work or for pleasure. However, it’s not hard to imagine that at least some of these crashes are work-related. For that reason, employers, managers, supervisors, and employees who drive should all think about how the risk of these types of crashes can be reduced.

At a minimum, workplaces should have a distracted driving policy. Road Safety at Work’s sample policy can be modified to fit your company’s circumstances.