For many Canadian motorists, they're a fixture of the morning commute: that lady in the left lane steering with one hand and curling her hair with the other, or the fellow scarfing down toast while he checks his e-mail on an open laptop or Blackberry.
Distracted drivers are being targeted by the Canadian insurance industry, which launched a $4-million, multi-pronged public education campaign Thursday in an effort to discourage the dangerous and costly habit of multi-tasking behind the wheel.
Accompanying Thursday's launch of the campaign was a study commissioned by the Insurance Bureau of Canada comparing how drivers of various levels of experience handled different distractions in both simulated driving conditions and on-road tests.
``Both novices and experienced drivers are affected by cellphone use,'' said Dr. Alison Smiley of Toronto-based consulting firm Human Factors North, which conducted the study on behalf of the industry group.
Forty drivers _ half with less than six months driving experience and half with more than 10 years of road time under their belts _ were put through their paces in a laboratory simulator at the University of Calgary and on the open road.
Testers measured their responses to various driving conditions _ vehicles changing lanes suddenly, braking and pedestrian hazards _ while distracted by cellphone calls and changing the CD in the car stereo.
Interestingly, experienced drivers were slower to perceive a vehicle braking ahead of them than novices when changing a CD, the study found.
A survey conducted for the bureau by polling firm Pollara suggests 89 per cent of Canadians believe too many drivers are distracted behind the wheel, but only 60 per cent are willing to do anything about it themselves, said bureau vice-president Mary Lou O'Reilly.
More than half of the 1,215 Canadians surveyed _ 58 per cent _ admitted to having recently driven while distracted. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said they had recently witnessed distracted drivers in action.
The survey is considered accurate to within plus or minus 2.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
The findings back up two previous studies done in Canada and Australia that show drivers talking on cellphones are four times more likely to be involved in a collision, said bureau vice-president Mark Yakabuski.
The point of the campaign won't be to try and sway governments, but to educate motorists about the danger, said Yakabuski, who estimates eight out of 10 collisions in Canada involve a distracted driver.
``It doesn't exclude the possibility of legislation . . . (but) whatever legislation might accomplish, it probably cannot touch the full gamut of distractions that are out there.''
Only one province _ Newfoundland and Labrador _ has passed legislation making it illegal to talk on the phone while driving.
In November, transportation officials in the United States called for a ban on cellphones for bus drivers after 11 students were injured in a tour bus crash in 2004 in Virginia that was blamed on a bus driver talking on a cellphone.
The Insurance Bureau of Canada campaign will begin in Ontario and Atlantic Canada for three months starting Jan. 22.
It includes a website, www.clickonthis.ca, that features an online simulator designed to demonstrate the effect of minor distractions on a motorist's ability to control the vehicle.