How the war on drunk driving distracts from the real danger

MADD should stand for Mothers Against Distracted Driving


Chris Wattie / Reuters

Military leaders, the criticism goes, are always looking to fight the last war, rather than the next one. Might the same thing apply to justice ministers?

Since being named federal justice minister this past summer, Peter MacKay has made it widely known he’s thinking about changing Canada’s drunk-driving laws. In particular, MacKay says he’s considering expanded police powers to conduct random roadside breathalyzer checks. This follows aggressive lobbying from Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada (MADD) for such a move, alongside other demands such as stiffer sentences and lower blood alcohol limits.

As deadly as it may be, however, drunk driving no longer constitutes the greatest threat on our roads. Decades of diligent effort on the part of governments, police and organizations such as MADD have permanently altered the behaviour of Canadian drivers for the better when it comes to drinking. It’s time to switch targets.

First the good news: The havoc wreaked by drunk driving has been falling in dramatic fashion. Since the mid-1980s the rate of charges laid by police for impaired driving has been in long-term decline in Canada. The rate of deaths caused by drunk driving are at the lowest level in 25 years; between 1995 and 2009, the latest statistics available, the number of drunk-driving deaths fell by more than 500 annually. Finally, polling by Canada’s Traffic Injury Research Foundation reveals drivers today are much less likely to get behind the wheel after drinking than they were just a few years ago.

Now the bad news: Earlier this month, insurance firm Allstate Canada organized high school students in 10 Canadian cities to conduct a national distracted-driving blitz. The students staked out major intersections and toted-up drivers doing things they shouldn’t. Nearly 20 per cent of all drivers were spotted either talking or texting on their cellphones, something that’s illegal in all provinces.

Instead of drinking, drivers are now distracting themselves to death.

According to the Ontario Provincial Police, as of the beginning of September, 32 deaths in the province this year are attributable to impaired driving, while 47 were caused by distracted driving. Texting is the most deadly of these distractions. The Canadian Automobile Association claims texting drivers are 23 times more likely to be in an accident than a driver who’s paying attention to the road. Experiments have also shown drivers who are actively texting have reaction times substantially slower than someone legally impaired by alcohol.

While drivers of all ages are guilty of texting and driving, U.S. government research suggests drivers under 25 are two to three times more likely to do so. Texting while driving has become the most prevalent form of risky behaviour and the No. 1 cause of death on the road among teenagers, according to other research from the Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New York. “The reality is kids aren’t drinking seven days per week,” notes study author Dr. Andrew Adesman. But “they are carrying their phones and texting seven days per week, so you intuitively know this is a more common occurrence.”

In light of all this, how much sense does it make to continue to add new weapons to the old war against drunk driving? We ought instead to acknowledge the tremendous success Canada has enjoyed in reducing impaired driving and use those lessons to fight new and more pressing problems. Rather than floating plans for expanded random breath tests, MacKay should be outlining how he plans to stop teens, and everyone else, from texting while they drive.

Beyond increasing the size and type of penalties, greater enforcement obviously helps. Police services have lately been getting more aggressive about texting, with some jurisdictions disguising officers as roadside panhandlers to get a better view of drivers’ laps. If drivers have a greater sense they’re being watched, perhaps they’ll think twice about engaging in such risky behaviour. Technology could also play a part in preventing or discouraging drivers from texting in a moving vehicle.

The greatest potential, however, lies in summoning the power of public attention, opinion and condemnation. Texting while driving needs to become as universally reviled as driving drunk. Humour can also be an effective tool in changing behaviour. Besides conducting its street-corner survey, Allstate also sponsors a student video contest aimed at discouraging distracted driving; last year’s winning entry promoted an amusing fictional product called the Safety Thumb, a small shroud slipped over a driver’s thumb to make texting impossible.

Finally, perhaps even MADD Canada—a dominant national advocate for safer roads—could signal this new reality by slightly altering its own name. Mothers Against Distracted Driving wouldn’t even require a new acronym.


How the war on drunk driving distracts from the real danger

  1. The problem is that the MADD agenda isn’t really targetted at elmiminating drunk driving related deaths specifically so much as eliminating drinking in general.

    • @Godless_Lawyer ; “The problem is that the MADD agenda isn’t really targetted at elmiminating drunk driving related deaths specifically so much as eliminating drinking in general.”

      Really? did you think that through? I have no affiliation with MADD, and love a few pints while watching the game…at home, and wish all drunks were kept from driving, as we all know a family or two, whose lives have been shattered by drunk drivers. My neighbour is an active member of MADD, and she also enjoys tilting back a few at home, and when out, calls a cab like all responsible people. Her other MADD pals also drink, so I have no idea where you came up with the idea that they are prohibitionists or anti-alchohol…that is like saying those who oppose texting and driving ate anti-phone, or anti-communication.

      • MADD’s adoption of a more neo-prohibitionist agenda was the reason its founding member quit the group. While I’m sure not every active member of the group is anti-drinking, I think the agenda of the organization has moved increasingly in that direction.
        I’m not really intending to make any kind of value judgement here. I’m just saying that MADD is unlikely to change its focus to distracted driving because it would detract from the focus of the organization, which is centered squarely on alcohol.

    • Job one is to ensure the continuation of MADD.

  2. A big problem with our efforts to curb the impact of impaired driving is that much of the problem is over stated. Two-thirds of all actual impaired driving accidents involve a driver with a BAC of .16% or higher, yet we have seen a surge of legal maneuvers against those who blow between .05 and .08. The law has been gerrymandered to punish those who haven’t even broken the law.
    Then there’s the misuse of statistics in a fashion that inflates the problem. If a sober driver hits and kills an alcohol impaired pedestrian or cyclist, that is recorded as an alcohol related motor vehicle fatality. If a sober driver runs a red light and fatally t-bones a legally impaired driver, that is also recorded as an alcohol related fatality.
    We know that fully one-quarter of pedestrians and cyclists killed in collisions with cars are legally impaired, but the way we record them inflates the impact of impaired driving. We also know that at least three quarters of all car accidents involve perfectly sober drivers, so it’s easy to assume that a significant portion of so-called impaired driving crashes are not the fault of the impaired driver.
    What we’re apparently unwilling to accept is that a couple of decades of public education about the perils of impaired driving has reduced the actual problem by half, and that’s about as far as it’s going to drop. Far too many activists and apparatchiks of the nanny state, though, are willing to believe that further assaults on our liberties will somehow eradicate the problem in its’ entirety.

    • Indeed, we can see from Transport Canada’s statistics that risks for under 20 drivers, those with minimal experience in either drinking or driving, much less both, rise quickly with low BAC%, whereas for older drivers the risk is flat until a BAC of 0.10% is reached.


      Going after essentially sober drivers at a BAC of not even 0.08% is not the right course.

      Better would be using technology similar to the ParkPlus system whereby a database of licence plates be established that would ‘flag’ the plates of vehicles used by any dangerous driver so that the police could pull them over and have a look-see.

      In other words, more enforcement and more efficient enforcement rather than more penalties.

      • There already is that data base. CPIC can do this, the issue would be that police cannot query every licence plate around them. They wouldn’t not be focused on the road.

        Their is a system already in place where camera’s are mounted to police cars and they automatically query the licence plate, however they are expensive and most agencies just don’t have that money in the budget.

    • Well said Bill. Enough is enough. I would rather run a reasonable risk of getting killed while on the road than live in an over the top, nanny, fascist police state.

      • here here

    • I would have to disagree with idea of what levels you think people are impaired. Science had proven that majority of people are very much impaired at 80mg%. Now, there are such a thing of functioning alcoholics that do provide samples above 300mg%, however if you watch them closely, it takes them a great deal of concentration for them to complete simples tasks without them appearing impaired.
      As for statistics, I never trusted them because as you pointed out, you just don’t know how they obtained their data.
      It is my opinion that there is still work that can be done which will reduce the number of impaired drivers even more. However the issue is still social and the soft sentences of $1400 fines and 1 year driving prohibition are not much of a deterant. Especially since you can get that time reduces to just 4 months if you enter into an inter-lock program.
      The idea of random testing I don’t think will fly especially when it starts to get to courts and their are charter aguements. However the I can see ASD’s (roadside tests) being done without mere suspicion when police are at a collision.
      Oh and a few facts. The 50mg% – 80mg% is a Provincial program, not Criminal code laws. For Alberta the ASD’s are actually calibrated for the immediate roadside suspensions when a breath sample is of 60mg% to 99mg%.

      Most police agencies don’t proceed with charges of breath samples unless the sample is equal to or above 90 or 100mg% on at least one of the samples. Note that I said breath, not blood.

      • But, the provincial programs openly and deliberately try to do an end run around due process. In fact, the provinces that have enacted the roadside seizure laws have openly discussed how they are designed to subvert due process by detaching them from criminal law. Sure, it’s all well and good when tackling the scourge of drunk driving. But, hey, why stop there? How easy is it to use the same ugly logic to go after income taxes the same way?
        “Gee, Mr Rod. we see that you’ve made an unusually large deduction for equipment repairs this year. How about we assume that you’re a lyin’ assed skunk and just seize that ol’ Peterbilt, even though you have 27 payments left?”
        We could go on at length about the subversion of due process and the specific place in Hell that leads, but I think you get the point.
        Where I get perturbed is how it all mirrors the great gun control debate. The gun controllers all talked a big game about being tough on gun crime. What that meant, in practice, was that they had stiff penalties for the mere act of owning or posessing a restricted weapon, when acting in a largely lawful manner. But, the moment any element of actual criminality crept into the equation, the typical left-lib mindset crept in and presto-changeo, the imperative to punish the miscreant got replaced with the usual “criminal as victim” claptrap.
        Thus, just as the punishment for unlawfully owning a restricted weapon, or defending one’s property with a legally regsitered one, was as bad as the punishment for committing some act of violence with one, we have people who get nailed for blowing .05 at a roadside stop ending up being punished as severely as one who hammers into a minivan and maims a mom and her two kids.
        I don’t have a problem with throwing people in jail for their third or fourth or fifth DUI. I do have a problem with someon getting hammered with $1000-1500 in costs without due process and without actually having broken a law.
        To paraphrase Martin Niemoller “First they came for the impaired drivers…”

  3. This article is a fantastic commentary on how MADD has fallen behind the times and is on a mission to combat a trend that is steadily declining. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that traffic fatalities caused by drunk driving have fallen by 52% since 1982, while in the same time period traffic fatalities that are unrelated to drunk driving have risen by a whopping 72%. Some portion of that 72% can be attributed to distracted driving. Consider that the NHTSA estimates that nearly half of all adults text while driving(surely half of all motorists do not engage in drunk driving), and that people who text while driving are 23 times more likely to be involved in a collision than people who don’t text while driving. Meanwhile MADD has expressed no interest in addressing that issue. I’m not trying to devalue MADD’s mission because it is important to teach youth and adults alike that there are many potential consequences for drunk driving, but one would think it only logical for them to shift their focus primarily to campaigning against distracted driving, which by all accounts is on the rise. Lobbying for harsher drunk driving penalties while the penalties in place are clearly serving as an ample deterrent is purely superfluous.

  4. MADD is more interested in raising funds than awareness.

  5. How about shielding or blocking a wireless signal inside a car? If you need to, you stop and get the phone outside.

  6. “popsiq
    How about shielding or blocking a wireless signal inside a car? If you need to, you stop and get the phone outside.”

    This would never stand, the ability to phone for help when you are
    trapped in a wreck cannot be limited. It was a fundamental selling point
    when cell phone use meant your child/ partner was ‘safer’ with a

    This of course was before the phone zombies had to check every single communication program they subscribed to every minute of the day.

    If it were possible to differentiate signals.. blocking everything except the
    telephone feature itself, would work. This could be an idea for future
    cellphone sales under new legislation. I suspect the techno-wizards
    could likely conjure this up in a hurry. Earth to P. MacKay!!! are you there???

    The data here brings HUGE information that continues to be ignored, similar data is
    substantiated in Australia as well. The FACT is someone finishing a busy
    intensive shift at work is MORE debilitated than someone at .08 BAC (or
    more). And there are far far more of those people on the road than drunks!
    Anyone out there awake???

  7. While I agree with many of the points made in both the article and comments there are many organizations already working on distracted driving. Leave well enough alone, MADD does a good job promoting alcohol related road safety.

    To name just a few: dropitanddrive.comm inoneinstant.org, focusdriven.org
    makeroadssafe.org. Hopefully one or many of these groups can have the same kind of impact it took MADD 20 yrs to build.

  8. DAMM Drunks against mad mothers

  9. MADD is less a drunk driving prevention organization now and more a group of pseudo prohibitionists. Like any lobby left to their own devices, they have fostered an atmosphere of fervent faith in their cause internally and this has led to the logical next-step: lobbying for the banning of alcohol. In BC they’ve lobbied against Sunday liquor sales, longer store hours, the expansion of private sales, and more. Lobbies will be the death of Canadian democracy just as they have been for the same in the USA.

  10. How about a button on the phone/device labeled “Driving” that automatically rebounds a message saying “I will respond when I am out of the car”?

    The problem isn’t booze or gadgets distracting, or crap hanging down from the rear view mirror, blocking the view of the road…
    The problem is people, and that is why research is pouring into developing robotic cars.
    As a whole, we are not smart enough to chew gum and walk at the same time, how can we possibly deal with driving in an age of tech gadgets?

    As a cyclist and one of the few without a cell phone or gadget, I am looking forward to robotic cars and a mandatory snow tire law for winter would be great in the mean time!

  11. An issue that I have noticed since the distracted driving laws have come to my province, is now drivers are attempting to hide the phones more, example would be by their knees. When they are moving slow in traffic or stopped at a red light, you can see them looking down at their croch. I don’t think its normal that people look at their croch so much. Unfortunately, to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, the offices kinda want to see the device. Most police drive sedans, and in my next of the woods, most people drive pickups. So I’m sure we have a ton of distracted drivers, however in the courts, all that there is evidence of is a bunch of croch lookers that can come up with any excuses, such as cleaning mustard of their pants.
    This new behaviour has actually made it more dangers as the phones are further away for people to take their eyes off the road and the drivers is focus even more on texting and hiding it while driving.
    What the police need are more search and seizure powers when they are investigating distracted driving. Something similar to what Ontario already has for radar detectors, which allows a police officer to search the vehicle for it. Perhaps the officer can check your call/text log and if there are sent messages during a time the officer can prove the offender was driving, it can be used as evidence.
    Regardless, ideas need to be tossed around for a better solution.

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