17 Dec Making Canadian Roads Safer: Lessons Learned from British Columbia and Beyond

In 2013, drivers reported about 260,000 crashes (PDF) and other accidents to the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, a total in line with the preceding year (PDF). For 2014, the figure increased to 280,000.

This initially seemed like a statistical aberration, but it turned out to be a trend. ICBC received reports about 300,000, then 330,000, and finally 350,000 vehicular accidents in 2015, 2016, and 2017, respectively.

In the course of only a few years, the province-wide accident rate had increased by nearly a quarter. The numbers for accidents resulting in injuries and fatalities were nearly as disheartening, with a 2017 total of 67,000 representing a nearly 22-percent jump compared to 2013.


Two 2017 Studies Identify Causes and Suggest Solutions

In 2017, ICBC commissioned  global consulting firm Ernst & Young (PDF) to prepare a report.  It included recent experiences in other nations and Canadian provinces regarding accident and fatality rate, plus road safety initiatives.. That paper identified some likely causes for the upsurge in traffic accident rates, along with some particularly promising potential remedies.

The Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia followed up on this work with a report of its own (PDF) which was issued later that year. Responding to and building upon the Ernst & Young project, “Safe Roads to a Strong ICBC” combines advice aimed specifically at making the province’s roads and highways safer.


An Ongoing Trend That Clearly Needs to be Addressed

Although official ICBC figures for 2018 are not yet available, these is little reason to believe that B.C.’s collision rate will have declined much compared to the preceding year when they do arrive. The first half of fiscal 2018 saw ICBC dealing with a “rising number and cost of claims” arising from vehicular collisions and other accidents.

If the trend of increasing accidents continues in 2018 and 2019, then it will add thousands annually to the numbers of those left injured or dead because of crashes in the province. This is a serious issue that needs to be addressed and we need to take steps to make British Columbia roads safer for all users, including drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists.


Distracted Driving Adds to Longstanding Problems

Although this relatively recent surge in crashes caught more or less everyone by surprise, experts have arrived at some agreement about the causes. As a PwC “Guide for Policy Makers on Reducing Road Fatalities” (PDF) notes, excessive speeds and inebriation consistently contribute to more serious vehicular crashes than any other sources worldwide. Distracted driving is also a serious contributor to collisions.  Drivers using a mobile phone are four times more likely to be involved in  a crash.

The authors of “Safe Roads to a Strong ICBC” agree that these are serious problems in B.C. but reasonably note that they are not likely to have given rise to the recent leaps in annual accident totals. Instead, they find that “Common sense and our collective experience tells us that the increase is largely attributable to distracted driving,” an issue that PwC’s researchers rank as the third-most dangerous globally (PwC, p. 8).

ICBC’s own data (PDF), though limited, paints a somewhat fuzzier picture. Though confined to fatal crashes, it shows the share attributable to impaired driving dropping somewhat sharply between 2010 and 2012, before holding relatively steady through 2017.

The fraction of all fatal crashes attributed to speeding largely did the same, although with an earlier peak. Responding officers listed “distraction” as the cause of fatal crashes at a fairly consistent rate throughout the decade running from 2008 through 2017.

While the “Safe Roads to a Strong ICBC” take on the situation emphasizes distracted driving as an explanation, it is clear that all three of these dangerous behaviours need to be taken seriously. ICBC lacks data covering non-fatal accidents because relatively few of these see an officer responding, due to a 2008 amendment to the Motor Vehicle Act loosening up reporting requirements (PDF).

Unfortunately, that leaves most of B.C.’s hundreds of thousands of annual crashes without any official explanation at all. While that is certainly undesirable, provincial, national, and global experiences make it clear that a comprehensive response will need to address all three contributing causes–speeding and impaired and distracted driving–at the very least.

An academic paper published in 2018, for instance, found that “fatal crashes more than doubled” on rural B.C. roads where speed limits had been raised four years earlier. Even those findings, however dramatic, cannot independently explain the province’s increasing crash rate, because they still cover relatively few accidents. Any worthwhile response to the problem will need to account for more than a single cause.


More Effective Enforcement of Existing Laws Could Help

Probably the most obvious place to start would be to look at how well the legal system is already doing at protecting drivers and passengers. Speeding and driving while impaired, of course, have been prohibited throughout Canada for many years, although the governing statutes have evolved plenty along the way.

Even if it is not the sole culprit for B.C.’s upswing in crash rates, distracted driving is now forbidden across Canada, as well. B.C. levies a $543 fine for a first offence and ups the ante to $888 for a second, with penalties in Ontario rising as high as $3000.

There is therefore a legal framework in place to clamp down on the three most likely causes of increasing accident rates. Enforcement, of course, is another matter entirely and not always easy to ramp up in ways that will not arouse public resistance or resentment.

PwC analysts, though, do consider improved enforcement a pillar of any “successful road safety strategy” (PwC, p. 10). Compared to complementary tools that will often be employed at the same time, increased, deterrence-focused enforcement of existing laws tends to be quite accessible.


Technology Coming Somewhat to the Rescue

Drivers who know that they are likely to be caught and punished for behaving recklessly tend to be safer and more responsible. There are also a wide variety of technology-based tools, though, that can lessen the impact of mistakes or even rule them out entirely.

Many passenger vehicles built in the last couple of decades, for instance, include systems which make them safer to drive under unusual or suboptimal circumstances. Features like the following can avert crashes and save lives even when drivers have created risky situations:

  • Anti-lock braking systems (ABS). Whether because of distraction, impairment, or excessive speed, drivers who need to brake suddenly and unexpectedly almost always benefit from ABS. Although an American National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) study from 2009 (PDF) found a “net zero effect on fatal crash involvements,” ABS was credited with reducing nonfatal crash rates significantly.
  • Electronic stability control. Speeding, impaired, and distracted drivers all become more likely to succumb to spins that rob them of control. The NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety both endorse electronic stability control systems that aim to prevent such problems.

These features are found on most modern cars, with Canada, the United States, and the European Union now having required them to be present on new vehicles for years. As older cars that lack such systems get retired, mistakes made by irresponsible drivers should become somewhat less dangerous, in general.

There are also more advanced safety technologies that can be every bit as valuable when it comes to preventing crashes. Two that increasingly crop up on even inexpensive new vehicles and which were highlighted in “Safe Roads to a Strong ICBC” are:

  • Automatic emergency braking. Statistics consistently rank rear-end crashes as the most common (PDF, p. xiii) of all, but modern cars are increasingly taking control to prevent them. The sensors and instrumentation required to enable automatic emergency braking make for a natural step toward fully autonomous driving, allowing car manufacturers to more easily justify associated investments.
  • Collision warning systems. Even without handing control over to the vehicle, technology can be used to avert otherwise-likely rear-end collisions. Forward-facing collision warning systems are relatively inexpensive for manufacturers to add to vehicles and have few downsides, in general.

Relatively novel technologies like these add an automated, “smart” layer to safety systems that have been found in many vehicles for decades. Global auto manufacturers have agreed to make them standard throughout their product lines by 2022, with many now being well ahead of schedule.

At some point in the future, such safety features will evolve into fully autonomous driving systems. Even the prototype-stage self-driving cars that are now being tested boast impressive safety records in general, despite some occasional but high-profile failures.

In the meantime, there are plenty of other technologies that are helping make everyone safer. Canada has been a leader in requiring drivers to install ignition interlocks after being convicted of drunk driving and similar crimes. Programs like ICBC’s “Techpilot” aim to help young drivers develop habits that keep them safe from threats like distraction.


Partnerships, Data, and Awareness Work When It Comes to Making Roads Safer

Still another traffic-safety-related area that experts have identified as harbouring plenty of potential is encouraging cooperation among those with the ability to improve the situation. Agencies, organizations, and individuals that could fruitfully collaborate too often fail to coordinate in ways that would multiply the effectiveness of their separate efforts.

This is a key conclusion of PwC’s guide to improving road safety (PwC, p. 10), and it is difficult to argue with. Even well-intentioned laws and processes sometimes get in the way, as with the inability to officially attribute causes to most nonfatal accidents in B.C.

One established way to encourage partnerships and cooperation among traffic safety stakeholders is to make high-quality data more readily available, too (PwC, p. 11). PwC highlights the United Kingdom as an exemplar of this fact, thanks to an accident-statistic gathering system that accounts for everyone from beat policemen to a nationwide auditing body.

The information that flows as a result has helped the U.K. rack up the second-lowest “road fatality rate worldwide.” The standardized STATS19 accident reporting form feeds into a huge, normalized dataset that is available to all.

This gives everyone from road engineers and urban planners to policymakers and health authorities the ability to make more informed decisions. It also establishes some common, reliable ground that these parties and others can use to cultivate helpful relationships with others.

Oftentimes, building public awareness will become a primary goal along the way. Drivers who understand the likely consequences of irresponsible behaviours voluntarily contribute to the cause of improved traffic safety themselves. Reliable, freely available data makes it easier to bring drivers on board (PwC, p. 13).


Working Toward a Safer Future

While B.C.’s fatality and serious-injury rates are still far below their historical high points, factors like population growth and miles travelled cannot alone account for recent crash numbers.  Even if there is no single cause or solution, though, it should be clear that plenty can be done to make roads throughout B.C. and all over Canada safer. The trend in B.C. of recent years has certainly been unfortunate, but there is plenty of reason to believe that the situation can be improved upon.