Driving a motor vehicle or encountering a vehicle as a pedestrian has always come with risks. The first people to die in collisions involving gasoline-powered vehicles were killed in England before the dawn of the 20th century.
A pedestrian in London, Bridget Driscoll, age 44, is generally considered to be the first person to suffer fatal injuries in an encounter with what the English call “a petrol-powered vehicle.” She was killed on Aug. 17, 1896 as she walked across the grounds of the Crystal Palace (a well-known exhibition centre) with her daughter and a friend. The unfortunate woman was struck by an automobile owned by the Anglo-French Motor Carriage Company which was being used to give demonstration rides. A witness described the car as being “driven at a reckless pace.” The vehicle was capable of travelling at eight miles per hour (13 kph) but it had been mechanically modified to reach just half that speed.
On Feb. 25, 1899 Edwin Sewell and a passenger died when they were thrown from an overturning motor vehicle in the London suburb of Harrow on the Hill. Sewell is believed to be the first car driver to die in a road accident.
Following the death of Mrs. Driscoll no prosecution was attempted. The mandatory inquest returned a verdict of “accidental death.” In fact the coroner in the case was quoted as saying, “I hope such a thing never happens again.”
An ironic statement considering that from that time to the present more than 600,000 people have died in the United Kingdom alone in road mishaps.
I could list highway and street collision statistics, including injuries and fatalities, all day long. The data is virtually endless and there are multiple sources.
One chart I found online says Canada has a road fatality rate of six people per one hundred thousand population. The annual highway death rate in the neighbouring United States was pegged at 10 per 100,000 while in the UK the statistic is a more moderate three people per 100,000. But in Britain vehicle ownership is far less significant in a nation where public transport continues to dominate.
In 2010 the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 1.25 million people died of injuries sustained in highway traffic mishaps that year. Translated that is one death every 25 seconds. The risk of dying as a result of a road collision is highest in Africa!
The WHO also reported that just 28 countries, encompassing less than 450 million people, had adequate laws in place to address what it called “the five major risk factors.” In order those factors are speed, impaired driving, no (motorcycle) helmets, no seatbelt use and improper motor vehicle child restraints.
I’m sorry to say the road death statistics worldwide have worsened in the intervening six years.
That’s because we now have to add another critical and fast growing factor to the list of road dangers. I believe it outstrips all of the other risk factors. And that is “distracted driving.”
I have railed against sloppy and dangerous driving practices including speeding, red-light running, tail-gating, failing to share the road and improper lane changes a number of times over the years. More recently I’ve added the scourge of distracted driving to my personal list of the most dangerous and potentially deadly driving sins.
I have also joined the growing number who believes motorists and in particular elderly drivers should be required to take driving tests at set intervals. Not written tests either. I am talking about actual road tests.
I don’t pretend to be a perfect driver. There probably isn’t such a person. But I am confident enough that the thought of taking a road test doesn’t bother me. If anything I should be better than I was when I was first licenced to drive at age 16. Experience is supposed to improve people’s driving skills.
However, when I witness what is happening on our streets and highways these days I am literally terrified. How some people passed their tests is totally beyond me?
My personal list of the most dangerous motorists is, in order, distracted drivers, red-light runners, speeders and those drivers who clearly don’t know that the centre line is there for a reason. Yes folks, when a vehicle is stopped or parked in your lane you are required to let oncoming traffic pass before going around the obstacle and entering the opposing lane. Based on personal observations I’m sure that out of every 10 motorists, eight feel it is their constitutional right to drive anywhere on the road they choose. Certainly the centre line is of no consequence to most drivers today.
Still, there is nothing out there that scares me more than people texting, talking on their phones, eating or performing any number of other tasks, all while they are in charge of a moving motor vehicle.
Just before Christmas I came as close as I ever want to come to meeting my maker while driving. I was in town too! Fortunately I was in no hurry that day or I wouldn’t be writing this column. A driver blew through a light that had long before turned red. Thanks to my slow start on the green he or she (I didn’t see who was driving, it happened too fast) missed the front of my moving vehicle by inches.
I can only assume the driver was distracted? There was no other reason. It was a rare bright morning this winter but the rising sun was at their back. Yet they ran that red light at speed.
I was in a daze for several hours afterwards. I can’t remember having that close a call.
True, the person involved may drive that way all the time. But given current trends my best guess is they were distracted. At the very least they weren’t paying attention and to me that qualifies as distracted driving.
After my close call I can imagine how the families of people killed or seriously injured in collisions caused by any one of the driving sins I have outlined today must feel. Almost all of the highway carnage in this country and elsewhere in the world is totally preventable.
In Ontario statistics show distracted driving related collisions have doubled since 2000. Worse still distracted driving deaths on Ontario roads long ago passed impaired driving-related fatalities. In addition someone is injured in a distracted driving crash every 30 minutes in this province. I refuse to use the word “accident” because these are not accidents!
Fines don’t work
Some expert has also determined that a person using their phone while at the wheel is four times more likely to crash than someone who is focusing on the road.
In Ontario distracted drivers are subject to a fine of $490 if the matter is settled out of court. If a summons is required or you decide to fight your ticket in court and lose, the fine is doubled to $1,000. A first offence will also cost you three demerit points. Novice drivers receive licence suspensions of varying durations including cancellation of their licence for a third offence.
Clearly the penalties currently in place, in Ontario at least, are not deterring people. I rarely drive anywhere without encountering someone talking on the phone or texting (it’s not hard to tell) in a moving vehicle. People have to know they are subject to a heavy fine and the loss of demerit points from their licence. The subject has never been publicized as much as it has been recently.
So, what’s the solution to this growing and unnecessary scourge?
There are simple answers, if drivers are willing to take them. If you’re driving alone turn off your phone and put it somewhere out of reach to avoid temptation. If you have a passenger, ask them to answer your phone or reply to text messages. Silence any notifications that may cause you to reach for your phone. You can also record a message before leaving home telling callers you are on the road and will call back.
Break the habit – that’s the obvious solution!
Critics are now calling for automakers to install devices in new vehicles that block phone use. I’m not sure that is a practical solution but if it is, bravo I say!
People are being jailed if they cause a fatal collision while driving impaired. There are now calls for the same penalties to apply to those who cause deaths or serious injuries because they were driving while distracted. I totally agree with that.
Yes, prison is a high price to pay for distracted driving. But if one of your loved ones is killed because of someone else’s thoughtlessness, I’m sure that is the least you would want to see happen to the offender.
The way things are going I believe jail sentences will have to be added to the list of penalties distracted drivers could face. Because currently this situation is completely out of control.
If you have a comment or question for Jeff Maguire he can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.