After surviving two car accidents and observing distracted drivers endanger the roads in her community, Karen Bowman decided she had to do something about it.
In 2010 Bowman founded Drop It And Drive, an organization that aims to prevent distracted driving—caused by the use of handheld devices and a host of other activities—by increasing education and awareness.
Three months later the mother of two received a terrifying call that would only strengthen her resolve: Her 8-year-old daughter Kylee had been injured in an accident. A distracted driver had hit the car Kylee was travelling in, slamming into it from behind at full speed.
The accident left Kylee with PTSD symptoms, short-term memory loss, and pain in her back and neck—problems she continues to suffer from today.
“For whatever reason [the driver] just wasn’t tuned in,” says Bowman, a resident of Nanaimo, B.C.
“It could have been cognitive distraction, it could have been visual. She wasn’t looking at the road and she just drove full highway speed into the back of the car that my daughter was in.”
Distracted driving has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons, having become a leading cause of road fatalities in Canada—surpassing impaired driving deaths in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Nova Scotia in recent years.
According to federal government estimates, driver distraction is a factor in over 4 million motor vehicle crashes in North America each year, and related economic losses from health care and lost productivity top $10 billion annually.
A recent Insurance Board of Canada (IBC) report argues that drivers talking and texting on their cellphones are just as cognitively impaired as someone who is legally drunk. IBC also estimates drivers who text behind the wheel are 23 times more likely to be involved in a collision. Those who talk on their cellphone—hand-held or hands-free—while driving are four times more likely to have a crash.
Death Toll Climbing
Meanwhile, many provinces have been scrambling to beef up legislation and launch awareness campaigns to address driver distraction. All provinces and territories have banned the use of hand-held devices while driving except Nunavut. Fines range from $100 to $400 (Ontario is now proposing a maximum fine of $1,000) and a deduction of 2 to 4 demerit points. But the death toll continues to climb.
Drop It And Drive has been advocating for higher fines for repeat offenders. Last week, a Vancouver man made headlines for racking up a whopping 26 distracted driving tickets and more than $4,300 in fines over the past 4 years. His car was finally confiscated after his 26th citation for texting while driving.
Although teenagers are often the poster children for distracted driving as part of the “texting generation,” statistics show a much broader demographic—from new moms distracted by their baby’s needs, to baby boomers who let their guard down because they’re bored with driving the same route they’ve taken to work for years.
The desire to multi-task in our fast-paced, hyper-connected world is also a major contributing factor, Bowman says.
“You have one job when you’re behind the wheel of a car, that’s to drive,” she notes. “You don’t need to be fiddling with your GPS, you don’t need to be fixing your makeup, you don’t need to be shaving, flossing your teeth, or reading the newspaper.”
Increasing fines and other punishments are important tools to help stop distracted driving, she adds, but a real solution will manifest only when the culture is changed through repeated education and awareness—getting to people “on an emotional level.”
Along with her group’s team, which includes a veteran firefighter, RCMP officers, and traffic collision analysts, Bowman presents real-life stories and research on the dangers of distracted driving to schools, corporations, and community groups in hopes of doing just that.
“We’re just trying to get people plugged into the fact that they’re essentially driving a weapon,” she says.
“A vehicle has just as much chance to kill somebody as, say, a gun does. So if you wouldn’t walk around with a loaded gun, why are you taking driving any less seriously?”