We have entered the 2019 calendar year, which means that Ontario’s new distracted driving laws haven taken effect. This means that the penalties for activities normally associated with distracted driving, such as talking on a cell phone or texting, have increased. Moreover, the law no longer limits the definition of distracted driving to just electronic device usage. Eating, drinking, or even holding certain objects in your hands can now result in fines and demerits on your driver’s licence. Here is a breakdown of what the new laws mean and how they effect you.
What is the Distracted Driving Law?
To fully understand Ontario’s new distracted driving law, you need to go back to 2017. That is when Ontario passed Bill 174, which regulated the sale of recreational marijuana after its legalization in Canada. In an attempt to address safety concerns by those who worried that legal sales of marijuana would make the roads more dangerous, the bill introduced new regulations for the governance of distracted driving.
There’s no doubt that distracted driving needs to be dealt with in some way. In June 2018, Ontario police reported it as the number one cause of death on the province’s roads. Whether due to marijuana legalization or another factor, this problem was bound to draw the attention of lawmakers hoping to solve the issue and save lives. Bill 174 gave the government the authority to strengthen existing road safety laws with more significant punishments and the ability to clearly define what counts as distracted driving. That leads us to 2019, when the law is now in effect.
Statistics about Distracted Driving
One of the main ways in which the legislation gained support was through the use of statistics and research to emphasize the threat that distracted driving poses to people on Ontario roadways. The Ontario government published an array of distracted driving statistics on its website to support the decision. Among these statistics was the fact that deaths from distracted driving have nearly doubled since 2000. Once every 30 minutes, a person gets injured in an accident caused by distracted driving. The proliferation of mobile devices certainly hasn’t helped matters, either. A person using a cell phone while driving becomes four times more likely to injure somebody due to distracted driving.
What Counts as Distracted Driving?
Under these new laws, you count as a distracted driver if you use a cell phone for any purpose, be it to talk, text, or even just change your music playlist. Other signs of a distracted driver include reading anything beyond road signs and other notices that are part of the normal flow of traffic. If you type anything into a GPS or hold an electronic device, you should pull over first. If a police officer catches you with a device in your hand, you may find yourself at risk of punishment. Finally, it’s important to note that electronic devices aren’t the only things that can create distracted drivers. Eating or drinking while behind the wheel can also lead to a police officer pulling you over and issuing a fine.
What are the Flaws of the New Law?
The new law, while a valiant attempt to reduce accidents caused by distracted driving, does have its critics. Those critics point out the subjective nature of enforcement. Specifically, a police officer who pulls somebody over should have proof of distracted driving, but that proof might not always be readily available. For example, somebody who taps their GPS unit while driving counts as distracted. A police officer can pull this individual over, but they probably don’t have visual evidence that a crime actually took place. Should the matter go to courts, it becomes a question of the officer’s word against the driver’s.
Critics of the new law suggest that police officers might not always be fair in their application of the law. Furthermore, as with any crime where evidence isn’t quite cut and dried, those who feel intimidated by the law may find themselves unfairly targeted by it. A person who doesn’t think that hiring a lawyer to help with a distracted driving charge will help runs a much higher risk of licence suspension due to their ignorance of the situation. In effect, critics contend that the law has the potential to unfairly target the impoverished and uneducated.
What are the New Penalties?
Under Ontario’s new distracted driving law, you face an increasing degree of severity in fines and penalties depending on how many times you have been previously pulled over for driving while distracted. For a first offence, your driver’s licence gets suspended for three days and you face up to $1,000 in fines. A second offence results in a seven-day suspension and $2,000 in fines. Finally, for a third offence you can lose your licence for 30 days and face up to a $3,000 fine. Third time offences also result in six demerit points on your licence.
There does seem to be some flexibility and discretion when it comes to administering the punishments. Representatives from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have indicated, for example, that getting caught with a bottle of water in your hand while driving might not result in the full $1,000 fine. However, such deviations would be a matter of discretion on the part of the courts rather than something written into the law. If you want to get off with a reduced fine after being charged with distracted driving, you would need to rely on an Ontario lawyer to help you through the process.
Can You Lose Your Licence on the Road?
While each of the new penalties for distracted driving come with suspension of your driver’s licence, you need to remember that suspending a licence isn’t as simple as just taking it away during a roadside traffic stop. A police officer has the ability to inform you of the punishment, but any suspension or fine can be challenged in court. This is when turning to a lawyer who knows traffic laws in your region can help. If you contend that the charge against you was unwarranted, you might be able to get it reversed. This would result not only in a reduction of your immediate fine but also a less severe punishment if you get pulled over again in the future.
Can You Lose Your Licence for Changing Radio Stations?
Some applications of this new law have yet to be fully discovered. A lot of the nuance and gray area will depend on how widely and harshly police officers enforce the new rules. When it comes to managing controls on your dashboard, such as changing radio stations or adjusting the heating, manipulating controls that are part of your vehicle’s standard configuration do not count as distracted driving. However, if you use a phone on a mount that controls your radio stations or have a GPS of any sort, a police officer could determine that you are driving while distracted. Until Ontario residents have a chance to see the enforcement of the law in action, it is a good idea to keep both hands on the wheel as often as possible and to avoid focusing on any buttons or activities that don’t directly pertain to driving.
What About Hands-Free Devices?
If you need to make a call or operate a GPS unit while driving in Ontario, you can still do so through the use of hands-free technology. The distracted driving law does not cover voice commands and other options on phones Bluetooth devices that don’t require you to physically touch the screen. Similarly, you can use a phone or mp3 player that is plugged into your car’s stereo system as long as you start playing the music before the vehicles goes in motion. Generally speaking, you can use any device that does not require you to touch a screen or take your eyes off the road. If you don’t already have voice controls set up on your phone, now is a good time to start using them.
Are There Any Exceptions to the Law?
The new distracted driving law has two exceptions that allow drivers to use electronic devices while behind the wheel. The first is that you can use a device, eat food, or read if you have pulled your vehicle off the roadway in a safe manner and parked. This doesn’t mean that you can just pull to the side of the road and make a phone call, but you can get your phone out if you stop in a parking lot or if you find a place where you can pull completely off the roadway. The other exception to the rule is that you can always call 911 in an emergency situation, even if you are driving.
The intent and legal boundaries of the new distracted driving law in Ontario has been clearly laid out, but the execution and enforcement is still in question. Regardless, one thing is for sure: it pays to make sure that you don’t use electronic devices or other potential distractions behind the wheel.