News / Vancouver

Laywer and former police officer call out ICBC’s ‘misleading’ distracted driving stats

Just 2 of the average 78 distracted drivers killed a year were on their phones, retired B.C. traffic cop’s FOI finds. But put them away anyway, he warns

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.

In his 22 years busting errant motorists, Cpl. Grant Gottgetreu heard one too many times the phrase every traffic cop hates: “Don’t you have better things to do?”

When he retired from West Vancouver’s police department last April, the veteran with the province’s integrated road safety unit had handed out so many speeding tickets he’d earned the nickname “Darth Radar” — from members of his own force. (He claims he doled out at least 2,000 infractions).

So Gottgetreu must surely have been overwhelmed by the 78 British Columbians killed a year because they used their cellphones while driving.

Wrong, it turns out.

“At that point, in all my years on the job I wasn't aware of any fatal crashes involving cellphone use, neither in my department or from talking to my peers,” he told Metro in a phone interview. “If those 78 a year were actually caused by cellphones, that would be all over the media — and why weren't we hearing about those drivers being charged?

“I wanted to know the numbers for electronic device deaths so I could deploy my team properly.”

So he filed a freedom of information request to find out.

It turned out, according to the B.C. Coroner’s Service, that in the eight years from 2008 to 2016, just 14 people were killed due to someone using an electronic device behind the wheel in the entire province — none at all in 2014 or 2016, and never any in B.C.’s largest cities, Vancouver and Surrey. It averages just two deaths a year in the entire province.

The 78 figure touted by ICBC and police? That includes all types of distracted driving — but as the province defines it, cellphone use is just one type of distraction. There are also internal and external distractions, and driver inattentiveness.

“We would attend a lot of car crashes on the Lion's Gate Bridge during the sunset, because people are looking at the sunset because it's so beautiful,” he said. “That's an example of distracted driving, but they're lumping that in with electronic devices.

“Or it could be a dog on your lap, spilling coffee on yourself, turning around and yelling at your kids in the backseat, or going past a car accident and looking at it.”

Indeed, a factsheet on ICBC's website lists the dangers of distracted driving in general, quoting the disputed statistic, followed by a list of ways to avoid cellphone use on the road and the penalties associated.

"More than a quarter of all car crash fatalities in B.C. in the last five years (2011 to 2015) were related to distracted driving," ICBC states. "That’s an average of 78 deaths per year, making distracted driving the second-leading cause of motor vehicle fatalities in B.C., behind speeding … No call or text is so important it’s worth risking your life."

Asked about the criticisms of the statistics used in its anti-electronic device campaigns, ICBC told Metro that it doesn't restrict "distracted driving" to cellphones but "anything that diverts the driver’s attention away from driving," spokeswoman Lindsay Olsen said in an email.

But she justified ICBC's focus on electronic devices, citing the 43,000 infraction tickets issued in 2016 and "preventable crashes" which include injuries and vehicle damage, not simply deaths.

"One of the most common distractions for drivers in today’s world is the smartphone," she added, "which is why ICBC focuses its public education efforts on discouraging the use of handheld electronic devices. Studies show that a driver is five times more likely to get into a crash if using a handheld device."

And it is true that car crashes and costly soft-tissue injury claims they cause are increasing dramatically in B.C., stretching the public insider's finances to the point of a projected $1.3-billion loss this fiscal year.

But according to lawyer Paul Doroshenko, with whom Gottgetreu works as a consultant, the accurate definition isn’t just splitting hairs — it has lasting effects many motorists, including his clients.

“What we see is people who are punished with lengthy driving prohibitions as a result of picking up their cellphone at a set of traffic lights," said Doroshenko in a statement. “… Those people are clearly not the risk they’re made out to be.”

ICBC countered that the "harsh penalties associated with electronic device use, and with driving without due care and attention, are appropriate and reflect the seriousness of this behaviour."

Asked if he doesn't think it's still dangerous to use one’s phone, Gottgetreu said drivers should put their phone out of reach or attached to their dash.

“I’m not saying for one minute that it's safe to use your electronic device while you're driving,” he explained. “Of course it's not safe: your eyes are not on the road and you're not paying attention.

“Any death is bad, obviously, and two is two too many. But my point of this whole FOI was about the proper deployment of the traffic enforcement resources. If we weren't so busy focusing on one part of distracted driving that's killing two people a year, we could have been focused on those three other categories of distracted driving killing 76 people a year.”

He wants ICBC and other provincial authorities to use more accurate messages, rather than “fear-mongering” inaccurate ones. For instance, awareness campaigns could focus on the other three types of distractions as well — or emphasize the millions that injuries and fender-benders cost ICBC, or how phone use ramps up your likelihood of crashing.

But when it comes to focusing so many resources on catching drivers checking a text at a red light, “Darth Radar” for once wonders if his fellow law enforcers might actually have better things to do.

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