Deaths blamed on distracted driving were down in 2011 but not everyone is convinced B.C.'s two-year-old system of fines is working.

Distracted driving deaths down, fines up in Lower Mainland

Police think ticket blitz helped curb fatalities due to drivers who talk or text on their cellphones

A ticketing blitz against distracted drivers in the Lower Mainland is being credited for a steep drop in associated car crash fatalities not seen elsewhere in B.C.

Twenty-six motor vehicle deaths in 2011 were blamed on driver distraction in the Lower Mainland, down 42 per cent from 45 in 2010, the year B.C. banned the handheld use of cellphones and other devices.

Other regions of B.C. where police weren’t as aggressive actually saw their fatalities from distracted driving hold steady or worsen, according to RCMP Supt. Norm Gaumont, the head of traffic services in the Lower Mainland.

“We told all out traffic units this was a top priority,” he said, adding three separate ticket campaigns were conducted last year.

As a result, Greater Vancouver-area RCMP issued well over 20,000 tickets (with some still to be tabulated), Gaumont said, up from about 14,000 in 2010.

“We’re going to hit it hard again in February,” he said.

While Gaumont believes drivers are improving their behaviour, he said there’s a long way to go.

“There’s still way too many people driving and looking at their cellphones and texting.”

Karen Bowman, creator of the anti-distracted driving website dropitanddrive.com, said she doesn’t believe the problem is improving.

“What we’re seeing out there on the road is an awful lot of people using their cellphones on a regular, repeated basis,” she said.

“I see more people than I can count every single time I leave my home.”

Bowman, whose eight-year-old daughter was injured by a distracted driver, said the legislation is a good step but does not seem to be enough to change behaviour.

One idea raised recently by a retired firefighter is that police immediately confiscate the handheld device, which would be impounded for some period of time.

“I like that idea,” Bowman said, but said she doubts it would happen.

The provincial government released B.C.-wide statistics estimating a 12 per cent drop in distracted driving fatalities for the first 18 months of the new law (up to July 2011), compared to the same period in the previous two years.

The fatalities count all sources of driver distraction, not just the banned activities.

But officials say it’s often difficult to tell for certain when distraction from cellphones or other gadgets have led to a crash.

The statistics are therefore thought to under-report those crashes because police only report “communications/video equipment” as a definite contributing factor in a very small number of cases.

Province-wide, more than 46,000 B.C. drivers got $167 tickets for illegal use of a hand-held electronic device in the 18 months to July 31, 2011, and another 1,372 tickets were handed out for drivers who texted or emailed while driving.

B.C. Solicitor General Shirley Bond said a 34 per cent jump in tickets issued in 2011 shows many drivers remain determined to talk or text behind the wheel.

“Far too many people are not getting the message,” Bond said, adding the province remains committed to the ban because the use of electronic devices while driving remains a leading cause of preventable deaths and serious injuries.

Talking on a cellphone while driving reduces a driver’s field of vision by 50 per cent  and quadruples the risk of a crash, according to evidence cited by the province.

Motorists with hands-free gear still can’t text or email, nor is it legal to use electronic handheld devices while stopped at a red light.

Drivers caught texting or emailing receive three penalty points in addition to the fine.

Novice or learner drivers can’t use any device, including hands-free ones.