BC’s impaired driving law: administrative sanctions over criminal prosecution

Yesterday the BC Court of Appeal dismissed a challenge to the Province’s 2010 impaired-driving law. The law, designed to reduce alcohol-related collisions, was introduced on September 20, 2010, and mandated automatic and immediate penalties such as licence and vehicle seizures, driving bans, and fines for people who receive “warn” or “fail” readings on roadside breathalyzer tests or who refuse to provide a sample.

The successful defence of this law may now clear the way for similar policing approaches to other road safety and public health problems.

The implementation of the 2010 law represented a significant shift in strategy: instead of pursuing criminal prosecution, police adopted a pragmatic approach intended to increase efficiency with a focus on public health: removal of the hazard, removal of the mechanism by which others are exposed to the risk, and creation of a very public and immediate disincentive to engage in the undesirable behaviour. Offending drivers were taken off the road, their vehicles impounded, and they were left to explain to others why they were unable to drive for a period of time. The Criminal Code of Canada was not used as part of this policing/public health approach. The shift to administrative penalties allowed better efficiency in processing drinking drivers than if offenders were charged under the Criminal Code, since criminal convictions while more severe, had lower certainty of punishment and required police to commit considerable resources to each case. Almost immediately, rates of impaired driving behaviour in BC declined sharply. The BC Justice Minister claims that the law has resulted in a 52% reduction in alcohol-related motor vehicle fatalities, or 190 lives saved.

The effect on fatality rates is pretty striking (source here and here):

Looking at the figure above, this public health and road safety good news story begs a question:

Could a similar approach be used to combat distracted driving or excessive speed?

Distracted driving in particular has been receiving steadily increasing media and government attention. The Office of the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles produced a discussion paper five years ago outlining the seriousness of the problem. It is now a factor in more BC road fatalities than impaired driving, and increases in crashes due to driver distraction or inattention are seen worldwide. Drivers’ use of electronic devices are of particular concern. Viewed in light of BC’s current penalties for impaired driving, the penalties for improper use of electronic devices appear dated and weak (and the penalties below reflect new laws that came into effect in January 2010).

Penalties for impaired driving, BC, 2014:

Breathalyzer readingPenalty
Warn (BAC 0.05 - < 0.08)- Driver’s licence seizure;
- 3-day driving prohibition (for first time caught in the warn range);
- 7-day driving prohibition (for second time caught in the warn range within five years);
- 30-day driving prohibition (for third time caught in the warn range within five years)
Fail (0.08+)- Driver’s licence seizure;
- 'Notice of Prohibition' starting immediately – removing driving privileges for 90 days
Source: Office of the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles (http://www.pssg.gov.bc.ca/osmv/prohibitions/impaired-driving.htm)

Penalties for distracted driving, BC, 2014

The use of an electronic device that is not allowed for in legislation but that does not involve texting, e-mailing or dialing, e.g., talking on a hand held cell phone.- $167 fine
- no penalty points
The use of an electronic device for communicating with another person or another device by e- mail or other text based message, e.g., texting, e-mailing or dialing.- $167 fine; and
- 3 penalty points
Source: Office of the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles, "Use of Electronic Devices While Driving: Definitions and Violation Fines"

Distracted driving puts vulnerable road users disproportionately at risk, just at a time when planners and environmental and health advocates are working to get people to use active transportation to increase physical activity and improve the communities in which we live. Safety concerns are already among the biggest issues cited for people considering active transportation options; further heightened concerns due to increases in distracted driving could negatively affect the population health benefits gained by the wider adoption of active transportation choices if people are less willing to expose themselves to the risk presented by distracted drivers—a risk that is largely beyond their control, and one against which they have little or no protection. Cyclists and pedestrians have good reason to be concerned about their vulnerability in the presence of distracted motor vehicle drivers:

“Driver distraction is impacting vulnerable road users who have the least amount of protection in the event of a crash: pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. These three groups of road users suffer from visibility issues, other driver processing issues and a general lack of crash protection – in other words they are physically smaller and may not have good lighting systems; their presence is not mentally processed by drivers to the degree that vehicles are; and they have little or no protection in the event of a crash, i.e., no protection from a vehicle crumple zone, a seat belt or an air bag. Because of these factors, vulnerable road users are more susceptible to vehicle drivers that may be distracted. Driver distraction delays reaction time and when reaction time is delayed, even for a few seconds, the consequences can be dramatic and can make the difference between life and death in the event of a crash.”

— Addressing the Problem of Distracted Driving and its Impacts to Road Safety 

Distracted driving is presenting a new challenge for efforts to create healthy, sustainable communities. Perhaps it’s time to take a cue from the success of BC’s impaired driving laws and look at how to get ahead of the growing problem of distracted driving on BC’s roads.

Road safety: leveraging positive externalities

I’ve often argued that giving road users the means to video record traffic around them not only gives them a tool to protect themselves from liability, but that if cameras are widely adopted they can be expected to reduce undesirable behaviour. This clever ad for the Fly6 rear-facing camera for bicycles nails it:

Vulnerable road users are especially, well, vulnerable as drivers become less courteous and more aggressive, and as distracted driving surpasses drinking and driving as a cause of crashes. That “people do the right thing when they know they’re being watched” is well-documented (as long as one defines “the right thing” as conformity to social expectations). Video camera technology is now reaching the point where the size, weight, video quality, recording capacity, and battery life of cameras not only make a “dash cam for bicycles” possible, but the price of the cameras is dropping rapidly. We are on the verge of having a practical product available at a price many cyclists would be willing to pay.

Here’s the thing though: this might be the start of a bigger change than simply having more cyclists riding around with cameras. On an individual basis, some cyclists with cameras will certainly benefit from documenting incidents and being better able to prove liability. But what’s really interesting is that cameras are being introduced into a social system, and the mere existence of cameras can be expected to reduce the very adverse behaviours that the cameras were designed to document in the first place. Furthermore, once the prevalence of cameras in the cycling population reaches a sufficient level, we can expect drivers to be less aggressive towards even those cyclists not using cameras because, to an inexpert eye, the Fly6 looks like an ordinary bicycle tail light.

Fly6 rear cameraStandard LED bicycle tail light

See? It’ll be pretty hard to tell the difference from 50 feet away.

The upshot? With a sufficient number of bicycle cameras on the road, it will become general knowledge amongst drivers that cameras like the Fly6 are commonplace but they won’t know who’s riding with a camera and who isn’t. That’s called a positive externality: a safety benefit that is enjoyed by cyclists who did not incur the cost of purchasing a camera themselves. And that’s a good thing.

We’re going to see significant adoption of video recording devices amongst drivers and cyclists over the next few years. As I write this, Fly6 has smashed their AUD$95,000 Kickstarter goal by raising over AUD$215,000 with 10 days remaining in their fundraising deadline. Another recent Kickstarter campaign for the Rideye forward-facing camera has been similarly successful. The market is clearly now ready for devices such as these. This wasn’t the case even a year ago, when a Kickstarter campaign for the Spectacam video camera system, which recorded both forward and rear-view video, proved unsuccessful.

I’ve owned a Countour HD sport video camera for a couple of years, and I can mount it on my bike to document traffic incidents when I ride. The thing is, I often don’t use it. Why? The device is inconvenient: mounting it on the bike is clunky, it’s too heavy to have on my helmet for long rides, and it has insufficient battery life and memory card capacity for a typical road ride. One important feature of the Fly6, Rideye, and Spectacam is loop recording; all other sports-oriented video cameras currently on the market don’t have an option for loop recording, so they simply stop recording when the memory card fills up.

Some commentators have characterized the proliferation of video recording by citizens in public spaces as a movement towards a Big Brother mass-surveillance dystopia. But it’s actually anti-Big Brother: it gives individuals the means to record their surroundings in public spaces where others could do them harm—including recording the police. This is empowering, and in fact turns the panopticon on its head: rather than the state or a central authority doing all the watching, the incentive for social conformity comes from the people on the streets themselves.

The increased availability of cameras for both cars and bicycles will not just provide victims of road crashes with documentation for damage and injury claims; hopefully the knowledge that dangerous or aggressive behaviour may be recorded will lead to improved behaviour by all road users, making it safer for everyone. Concerns about safety are consistently cited as being among the biggest deterrents for cycling. If the adoption of camera systems improves perceived safety, then the resulting increase in bicycle ridership leads not only to safety in numbers, but savings in health care costs resulting from increased physical activity and the improved health in the population overall. The benefits of increased safety goes far beyond reduction of crash injuries.

Bicycle video cameras are coming, and they are part of the solution. It’s a win for everyone!

Dashcams: beyond protection and entertainment

So, earlier this week I was driving to an appointment and this happened:

I called in the first responders, did an initial assessment of injuries, gave my witness statement–which included an on-the-spot video replay–to the police officer attending the scene, and was eventually on my way. I was of course terribly late for my meeting (and out-of-pocket for the time lost with the professional I had the appointment with), but at least injuries were minor. It goes without saying that it could have been much worse, but I’ll say it anyway.

Dashcams are very popular in Russia, where we are told drivers use them to protect themselves from insurance fraud, but face it: the internet has an insatiable appetite for these often jaw-dropping and sometimes funny crash videos.

While the focus of talk about dashcams usually relates to their utility as a documentation tool for insurance claims (and assignment of fault) and as a source of sometimes spectacular entertainment, there’s an opportunity to leverage these devices as part of a proactive strategy for improving road safety.

One obvious application for dashcam video is to aid incident reconstruction. Unless an intersection camera captures a crash, crash analysts need to rely on reconstruction of the event through such methods as assessment of vehicle damage, measurement of skid marks, and more recently, information captured by on-board Event Data Recorders. As dashcams become more prevalent, access to footage such as the crash I recorded this week will become an increasingly common addition to crash analyses. Dashcam footage can help traffic engineers directly observe road system “failures,” supplementing current common practices such as observing traffic flow in high-crash locations with an eye to identifying disruptive points in the flow that set the stage for crashes. If crash analysts and traffic engineers can gain an improved understanding of the events leading up to and occurring during a crash, changes can be made to reduce the likelihood of similar events occurring, improving safety for everyone in the process.

Dashcams can also be an invaluable incident prevention tool in their own right. My 16 year old son is in his first year of BC’s Graduated Licensing Program, and is facing a huge learning curve as he works to build skill and experience. The dashcam allows me to replay video on my smart phone via an in-car Wi-Fi connection. As a novice driver, he may not spot a potentially hazardous situation developing, and by the time I draw his attention to it from my position in the passenger seat the earliest stages of the developing situation have passed. With the dashcam I can direct him to pull over where we can review the video. I can walk him through a replay of what he was driving through a minute earlier, and I’m able to roll the video back to show him when and how the situation first began to develop, what should have drawn his attention, and why. This kind of understanding is extremely difficult to  gain without a near-instant video replay of events available immediately. It has proven to be an enormously useful driver coaching tool. Being able to identify potential dangers where one didn’t think to look for them previously is a fundamental part of the driver training process. It would be interesting to design a study to evaluate the utility of dashcam-assisted driver coaching compared to driver training that does not use coached dashcam review.

There’s also subtle yet profound effect on driving behaviour resulting from simply knowing that everything one does is being recorded. In fact, I have my dashcam configured to announce (in a professional-sounding female voice) “Starting normal recording” every time the car is started and the camera completes its start-up cycle, reinforcing the fact that there is a dashcam in the car. The camera displays the time and vehicle speed in every frame recorded, and every person driving my car knows this; they also know that should they get in a crash, the video will be reviewed and their driving scrutinized.

We never plan to get in a collision–such incidents are by nature unexpected–but knowing that everything is being recorded reinforces for me the importance of driving as professionally as possible. After all, should I ever get in a crash, I want to make sure that the video footage clears me of fault rather than providing evidence that I was even partly responsible. Who wouldn’t? Nobody wants to be the subject of blame; we want to look good. Perhaps dashcams can make our roads safer by exploiting peoples’ desire to be portrayed in a positive light. It’s an interesting question of social psychology; if that’s the case it’s difficult to see the downside of appealing to this psychological trait in the name of road safety.


When professional and personal interests collide

A car-to-bicycle crash test

It’s been several months since I last updated this blog. A lot has happened since then.

In mid-December I picked up some race damage on my hand which made typing slow and awkward but made for a great bike racing story. Coupled with rapidly-approaching holiday commitments and consequent post-holiday catch-up at work, writing took a back seat to getting the cast off of my hand in time for my next race in mid-January (which I managed to do, salvaging respectable results in spite of being unable to ride the bike on anything but a trainer while wearing a cast until shortly before race day).

It might have made me less keen to update this blog, but it was a typical minor and inconvenient injury that comes with being an active competitor in a velocity-based sport.

A couple of weeks later I was rear-ended by a car while riding my bike to a weekend training ride with my racing team. This was a whole different situation. My injuries have been significant. It’s been four months since the collision, and my therapists cleared me to ride my bike only a couple of weeks ago.

The irony of being hit by a car, given my interest in risk and safety, isn’t lost on me. My personal and professional interests literally collided. The physical and psychological impacts of a driver’s poor decisions were severe enough that many things, including writing here, have had to take a back seat to recovery while I tried with varied success to stay on top of existing professional and family obligations. Recovery from my injuries has been a difficult and time-consuming process, and there’s a lot of work left to do. But it could have been a lot worse, and I’m thankful for that.

It’s striking how an event like this transforms an intellectual and rather abstract interest in safety, and makes it very real is an all-too-concrete sense. As someone who has spent much of his professional life dealing with the aggregate statistics of adverse events, such personal experience provides a much-needed renewed appreciation that behind health statistics lies flesh and blood, and that long after an event is recorded, long-term effects may linger.

It also underscores how traffic “accidents” are seldom genuinely accidental, as they are almost always preventable and the result of operator error. As a social scientist, what I find more interesting is trying to better understand the root cause of these failures, including the elements of “road culture” that may play a role in such incidents. Given my recent experience, I’ve spent a lot of time asking questions like:

  • What can be done to instil a greater sense of responsibility amongst all road users where safety is concerned?
  • What actions can vulnerable road users take to protect themselves through improving driver behaviour?
  • What can vulnerable road users do to help them improve their position with respect to documentation, establishment of liability, and obtaining appropriate redress following an adverse traffic incident?

Traffic collisions aren’t accidents; they are individual and system failures. Road user education initiatives, regulatory and legislative change, modification of existing road infrastructure, and application of technology are all ways that the problem can be addressed. Research and evaluation on both incidents and the initiatives designed to prevent them is needed if we wish to continue making progress on the prevention of injury on our roads.

No, I asked for ANTI-microbial soap

A few weeks ago a batch of widely-used anti-microbial hand soap needed to be recalled due to dangerous bacterial contamination.

Oh dear.

Health Canada’s recommendation was to “not use [the contaminated product] or any other antimicrobial foaming hand soap that you cannot identify from a dispenser” [emphasis mine]. Which created a bit of a conundrum: if you couldn’t identify the product in a dispenser, was it safer to not wash your hands?

Challenges and ironies of health messaging

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has a nifty quick “bike benefit calculator” on their website. It’s intended to promote cycling as a transportation choice for commuting to work. It’s basic and delivers a simple message: cycling instead of driving can save you money.

I have to say I’m left scratching my head a bit about how they chose to communicate the “health benefits” derived from cycling to work instead of driving.

At right is what the calculator shows me when I plug in my 10 km one-way commute to work (I often ride to work, or I did until this happened last week). Don’t get me wrong: I love a double double and a doughnut as much as anybody. But measuring health benefits in terms of the tonnage of doughnuts and extra-sweet coffees I can consume to put my caloric balance right back where it would be if I were driving my car seems… to miss the point somehow. Think of what fitness gains I could realize if I didn’t nullify my expenditure of nearly 150,000 calories per year riding to and from work by replacing those calories with junk food?

While I find myself chuckling at the irony of the cycling-for-Timmies metric, it does raise a serious question: how to sell the benefits of behaviour change to an audience that might not be already physically active? Perhaps the CBC used the coffee-and-doughnut metric because they had a sense that people might be concerned about trying to maintain their weight, and that the concept of junk food “treat” rewards would be appealing? A more direct method—caloric equivalent of a pound of fat, say—might have similar (but admittedly less Canadian) appeal, but taken too simplistically and literally, it can generate unrealistic values. For my 10 km commute for example, if I didn’t eat more than I would if I drove my car, using CBC’s caloric estimate I’d have burned the equivalent of about 41 pounds of fat. That’s an unlikely real world scenario for a multitude of reasons. For starters, I eat a bit more when I exercise regularly, so my weight loss wouldn’t be nearly so significant.

For people who aren’t already physically active, providing a compelling reward metric can be difficult for social marketers who work to promote less-polluting, less-congesting, and healthier transportation choices. This year, after a several months of regular bicycle commuting, I shed 14 pounds, but my biggest pay-off was a significant increase in cycling speed and power—a benefit that has had direct positive impact on my cyclocross racing performance this season, and which is far more compelling for me than a wheelbarrow full of doughnuts. And this is the challenge for social marketers, urban planners, and health promotion advocates: different people respond to different incentives.

So, join me in relishing the irony of the Timmies health benefit metric, but also reflect on how this illustrates a fundamental challenge in promoting the benefits of behaviour change to a diverse population.

And yes, I’ll admit it: bicycle commuting has allowed me to treat myself to a doughnut or two from time to time as well.

Evaluating Dumb Ways to Die

Gosh but I love this. Everybody loves this. It’s cute, it’s engaging, it (eventually) nails the message, and the tune is catchy as heck. Love love love!

But is it effective?

The video and its associated micro-site have gone viral in the last few days. And yeah, maybe some people will criticize it for being long, but fundamentally it’s a very slick piece of work and full credit to Melbourne Metro Trains for pulling it off and getting over 14 million views within a week of posting the video to YouTube. 14 million! In a week! And while impressions are certainly a useful measure for message exposure, the objective of a safety campaign is behaviour change, not impressions or click-throughs or Facebook shares. So what about that behaviour change?

I’m reasonably confident that a campaign of this scale (you can bet this initiative was not cheap!) has an evaluation framework to assess its effectiveness with respect to the outcome of interest. They’ve got to be able to quantify changes in the target population, specifically in behaviours that contribute to the outcome of interest (or, more likely, to the outcomes they wish to avoid). Now, I realize that corporate relations people speak to the media in broad strokes and deliberately avoid detail, but when Leah Waymark, the General Manager of Corporate Relations at Metro Trains, summarizes the initiative’s evaluation criteria as “…if we can save one life or avoid serious injury, then that’s how we’ll measure the success of this campaign” pardon me if I get a bit uncomfortable. Especially when I then can’t find anything elsewhere that describes the campaign’s evaluation strategy.

When I first saw the video and looked through the campaign’s micro-site, I smiled in appreciation of the work that went into making it so fun and engaging. And yes, that silly tune got stuck in my head. Shortly after that, my mind started asking questions:

  • How many deaths or serious injuries occur on this train system each year, anyway?
  • How many of these deaths are accidental?
  • How many are the result of system or equipment failures, or employee error?

And so forth. Fundamentally, these are the sorts of questions any initiative needs to fully articulate in the developmental stages. How big is the problem? What do we think are the primary factors behind this problem? How can we target the population segments most at risk? And to quantify the effectiveness of an intervention, we’d want measures of behaviour from before the initiative begins (a baseline) and follow-up measurements to assess short- and longer-term change. For starters.

I looked around the micro-site and the Metro Trains website as well as doing my best with Google searching in an effort to learn about how Metro Trains will be evaluating the campaign. Sadly, I couldn’t find much of anything at the time of writing. Hopefully that’ll change in the coming weeks, since this is after all a very new campaign. That said, I’d like to think there’s an opportunity for organizations to be more open with their evaluation criteria, and the methods by which they aim to measure success against those criteria. I doubt that I’m the only one wishing that organizations would provide links to information about program evaluations. At the least, it would be a good proactive gesture from Corporate Relations to indicate to the public that yes, they’ve thought this stuff through, and that yes, this happy safety campaign has some real methodological rigour behind it and is more than jelly bean eye-candy and a very, very catchy tune.

It would be one simple, cheap and smart way to let the air out of the ever-present criticisms that campaigns such as this are a waste of time and money because they fail to achieve their intended outcomes (or their outcomes are mis-specified).

It’s a small thing for an organization to do. For Metro Trains, it would be a simple and smart addition to Dumb Ways To Die.