News / Vancouver

ICBC wants to shackle drivers' phones

Agency seeking 200 volunteers to test out new app it hopes can save lives.

A driver plays the game Pokemon Go while driving in this 2016 file photo.

Amr Nabil/The Associated Press

A driver plays the game Pokemon Go while driving in this 2016 file photo.

Want to help save 78 British Columbians' lives a year?

British Columbia's public auto insurer is looking for volunteers to help test an app that cracks down on distracted driving.

"We're hoping for volunteers to install this technology in the cars and phones, use it for a few months, and provide us feedback thorugh a survey," explained Mike Milner, road safety program manager at the Insurance Corporation of B.C. (ICBC), in a phone interview. "It's a dongle that attaches to your vehicle's on-board computer and transmits information to your smartphone.

"It tells the app you're paired with you're driving and shuts down handheld use of your device while driving."

Here's how it works: the free smartphone application communicates with a telematics device — a small wireless transmitter installed into a car, more typically used to help collect driving data — which blocks access to the test-drivers' phone when the vehicle's moving.

Milner said two or three companies' technologies — of roughly a dozen who submitted bids this year — would be volunteer-tested starting in January. But the telematics wouldn't collect any data, he said; the goal is to survey the participants afterwards about their experience and concerns with the technology.

"Because no matter what studies tell us would work," he explained, "if people won't use it, it's not very useful for us.

"We need to make sure it's something people would accept and are comfortable with, and that it doesn't cause them problems."

An average of 78 people die on B.C. roads every year because of distracted driving. That's more than the number killed by drunk drivers, an average 66 people.

Crashes in general are rising in B.C., the agency announced this summer, averaging 875 collisions every day, which ICBC credits to poor driving practices such as using handheld devices behind the wheel.

That increase in collisions and claims have taken a severe toll on ICBC's budget — which the agency last year warned might lead the agency to raise rates more than 40 per cent over the next five years.

"We're eager to find ways to reduce distracted driving through this pilot," said ICBC president Mark Blucher in a statement. "… ICBC's rates are under considerable pressure and one of those reasons is a significant increase in crashes, many of which are the result of distracted driving."

To help ICBC test-drive the app, volunteers can register on the agency's "customer advisory panel" which it uses to help improve its services.

But if you're one of many B.C. drivers who still check their texts or chatting without a hands-free device — two-in-five drivers, an ICBC survey released in September found — you don't need to ask ICBC to shackle your phone for you.

"You don't have to be part of the pilot to make a difference now," Blucher noted. "You can do that every day by simply taking a break from your phone. Apps are already available, including the Do Not Disturb While Driving feature, on iPhones and some Android devices."

Penalties for distracted driving — even at a stop light — include a $368 fine and four penalty points, costing an additional $175.

If successful, could the app one day be rolled out more widely — perhaps in exchange for discounted rates or for frequent violators?

"That's something we're going to be investigating going forward, but not something we've made a decision on yet," Milner replied. "Ideally we'd like to see that, but we need to get more information and see whether the use of this technology actually results in safer drivers and fewer crashes.

"From my perspective in road safety, I just want to see fewer people being killed and injured on our roads."

To volunteer for the app pilot or other surveys as a Customer Advisor — and enter their $100 draw — visit ICBC's Customer Advisory Panel website.

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