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Speed, distracted driving key concerns for West Kootenay youth

RCMP Cpl. John Ferguson has spent 19 years trying to minimize traffic fatalities and injuries in West Kootenay. - Greg Nesteroff photo
RCMP Cpl. John Ferguson has spent 19 years trying to minimize traffic fatalities and injuries in West Kootenay.
— image credit: Greg Nesteroff photo

After 29 years in traffic law enforcement, including 19 in West Kootenay, RCMP Cpl. John Ferguson has seen a shift in the leading causes of crashes among young people. Where alcohol and lack of seatbelts were once prime factors behind fatalities and serious injuries, today speed and distracted driving is more often to blame.

“When I first came here, we would get some very serious crashes with alcohol involved,” Ferguson says. “We haven’t had that lately and I’m hoping and praying we don’t. I find the majority of youth take things seriously when it comes to alcohol and getting behind the wheel.”

Likewise, seatbelts are second nature to most youth. Buckling up has always been mandatory in their lifetime, so it’s the first thing they do when they get in a car.

Going too fast and not paying attention are now the chief concerns police have with young drivers. “Speed is the No. 1 killer of youth,” Ferguson says. “We’re giving youth a lot of speeding tickets.”

Under BC’s graduated license program, a single ticket means probation and a second ticket means losing your license. Even if you’re a month away from being able to remove the N sticker from your vehicle, a ticket will result in a minimum 30-day driving prohibition and starting all over again.

Distracted driving is a problem for all ages, but it’s the second-most prevalent cause of crashes among youth. Ferguson says the use of hand-held devices appears to be on the rise.

For young drivers, distractions can come not only from cell phones but from having more passengers than allowed. Ferguson says they sometimes catch kids in that situation who are driving home drunk friends. While he appreciates their good intentions, he says they need to plan ahead. “When you’re driving, you need to concentrate. If you put more people in the car, especially someone who’s drunk, that takes away from it.”

Ferguson, a Mountie for 34 years, is the acting officer in charge of West Kootenay Traffic Services. He and four constables investigate all serious and fatal crashes in the region while the Integrated Road Safety Unit has five members who try to reduce crashes in key areas through a combination of enforcement and education.

He says when police cars are on the road, people tend to adjust their driving habits accordingly. “If they see a police car on Highway 3A, or 22, all over the place, our problems diminish. Every police car we can find goes out on long weekends.”

So far this year, West Kootenay has had two traffic fatalities, both in the Trail area, one involving a youth. In that case, speed and lack of seatbelts were blamed. In 2013, there were nine fatalities, including one youth who was speeding and texting. In 2012, there were six fatalities, but no youths.

Ferguson says it’s never easy to break news of a death to a family, but it’s even worse when young people are involved. “Children and teenagers are very hard, especially if you have a child the same age,” he says. “It’s a parent’s worst nightmare to get the phone call or the knock on the door.” (These days, families sometimes learn through social media before police have a chance to tell them.)

Ferguson’s main message to parents is to know where your children are, restrict their vehicle use, and tell them they can call you for a ride if they get into trouble. “Make them understand the repercussions of their actions as much as you can. When we’re young we all think we’re invincible.”

His message to young people is to use common sense. “I’m not naive. I know kids are going to drink underage. But do it responsibly. If you’re going to a house party, don’t take the car. If you do, don’t drink. Stay away from texting. It’s not so important to look at it while you’re driving. Five seconds of distraction can have huge consequences.”

Ferguson said he wasn’t aware of any incidents following high school graduation ceremonies in Nelson this month and hopes that remains the case throughout the region.

“If I wake up Monday and my phone hasn’t rung all weekend, I’m very, very happy. It means no one has died in this area. That’s what I want.”

Young driver education an important safety tool

Tamara Hynd, Nelson Star

Driving education can be an important tool in a young person's safety behind the wheel. While it's not part of Kootenay Lake school district's curriculum, local high schools do facilitate drivers education in many ways.

Mount Sentinal Secondary Principal Glen Campbell discussed the programs and opportunities students have that highlight the importance of driver safety offered through their school each year.

Representatives from ICBC visit the South Slocan school as part of the Road Sense program with a speaker who talks about safe driving. The topic details vary but they usually visit in April prior to graduation.

“It's about making good choices,” said Campbell. “And it has an impact.”

Another annual program has the drama class team up with local emergency response providers in May.  Along with the students, the RCMP, Fire Services, first responders, BC Ambulance, and the BC Coroners Office create a mock accident scenario for other students.

“It is a real test that is timed and played out from start to finish including the final vehicle being towed away,” said Campbell. Once the scenario is complete, students and participants reconvene in the gym to talk about these real scenarios. Emergency services get a chance to explain what is involved and the serious circumstances.

“Vehicles are very dangerous,” said Campbell. “It's also a chance to acknowledge these folks. Most of them are volunteers. We all want the best for (the students) plus the kids are also exposed to these groups that they can join in the future.”

The P.A.R.T.Y.  program is also a part of Health and Career classes and Planning 10.

“These accidents are very real occurrences unfortunately and they are very devastating, especially being a small community. These tragedies remind us to educate,” said Campbell.

In the event of a death or serious injury, the school provides counselling to students. “It's obviously traumatic so we offer grief or trauma counselling,” said the principal.

Mt. Sentinal also facilitates driving courses with Driving Solutions. The six to eight week program runs each semester when there are enough registrants. The course also earns a student two Grade 11 credits. It is arranged through the school's rental agreement, is after school hours and is more convenient than the kids having to travel to Nelson or Castlegar for driver's training.

Tim Hutteman, principal at Nelson's L. V. Rogers Secondary echoed the impact of the Road Sense program that sponsors speakers who address the Grade 10 and 12 students at the beginning of May. This year's speaker was a young man who got behind the wheel when drunk who ended up killing his buddy; Hutteman said this struck home with many students. They focus on those two grades because the Grade 10s who are turning 16 are able to receive their  “N” with the graduated licence system; and the Grade 12s are approaching graduation.

Local youth Maia Vezina spoke to the students two weeks ago about her experience recovering from a serious vehicle accident after being hit head on by a driver who allegedly had been drinking.

“Maia did a fabulous job,” said Hutteman, adding that her presentation gave specific examples of how to deal with tough social situations with friends who may have been drinking. Those example included taking away their car keys.

Another approach to road safety education can be found in the science and physics lab. RCMP Const. Bahnhart is an accident specialist who comes into the physics class room. He speaks to them about the forces of friction, the effects of wet pavement on road skidding, the investigation process and the science behind it.

Unique to LVR is their LVTV they can broadcast to classrooms. They use the TV to share weather changes and how that might effect driving conditions with suggestions like speed reduction, change winter tires and seatbelt reminders.

In the event of a traumatic accident, all the Kootenay Lake schools have access to counsellors (LVR has two) and there is a District team who address the needs of students and family.

Hutteman said Counsellor Todd Kettner is a first responder on the team made up of Nelson City Police, administrators and school counsellors. All this supportive effort goes a long way in a crisis.

Stop driving while distracted

Will Johnson, Nelson Star

Drivers need to stop distracting themselves if they don't want to get killed in a crash. The chime of a text message, the chirping beep of a Facebook notification — these could be the difference between life and death.

"What we've seen since the legislation change in 2010 is we've seen signs of improvement for the distracted driving trend," said Christine Silver, road safety coordinator for the Southern Interior region.

"But it's too early to identify a trend. The five-year average for deaths per year due to driver distractions has dropped from 94 to 91, but distracted driving still remains a leading cause of car crash fatalities in BC."

"Distracted driving is also a leading contributing factor in crashes that result in injury, such as rear-end crashes."

That means high schoolers need to turn off their cell phones and pay attention to the road.

Compared to young males, young female drivers are less involved in crashes related to distracted driving, speed and impaired driving. However, they were distracted nearly three times more than they sped and almost 10 times more than they drove impaired.

According to police data compiled from 2008 to 2012, distracted driving caused 34 per cent of crashes. Impaired driving caused nine per cent. And even though speeding is only a contributing factor in 19 per cent of crashes, it is the leading cause of fatalities.

Factors such as driver inexperience, driving without due care, overestimation of ability, thrill-seeking and risk-taking play a role in the high rate of youth crashes, according to ICBC's research.

Impaired driving continues to be a problem in BC. In an average year, 95 people die in motor vehicle crashes involving impaired driving. Approximately 29 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities are related to impaired driving.

Crashes most often occur on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Almost half (45 per cent) take place between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m.

Youth between the ages of 16 and 25 account for the highest number of impaired drivers in crashes, at 32 per cent.

"Make a smart choice," said Silver. "If you're going to be drinking, make sure you have a sober designated driver, money for transit or taxi, a place to stay overnight or a friend you can call for a ride."

Since 1976, when ICBC's CounterAttack road checks began, there were more than 300 fatalities a year related to driver impairment. In 2012, that number had dropped to 56. ICBC still considers that number "unacceptable".

Recent studies have also address stoned driving. Depending on what the driver has ingested, impairment can range from slowed reflexes and flawed depth perception to hallucinations, psychosis and seizures.

New legislation means police can test for drug-impairment and charge drivers who refuse to provide blood, saliva or urine samples when requested.

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