Distracted driving: police blitz as province moves to boost fines

As the Ontario government introduces legislation to boost fines for distracted driving, Toronto police are launching a blitz Tuesday aimed at drivers who use hand-held electronic devices at the wheel.

Under proposed legislation, Ontario would see drivers receive three demerit points on conviction for a distracted driving offence, while also allowing judges to fine an offender between $300 and $1,000. That's up from a current fine range of $60 to $500.

The government would also like to make distracted driving an offence that is contrary to the conditions that new drivers must adhere to.

The Ontario Provincial Police recently called distracted driving "the number one killer on roads" in the province.

Although much of the discussion about distracted riving is focused on electronic devices — such as cellphones, tablets and music players — Toronto police say the offence applies to "any action that a driver engages in takes their focus away from the safe operation of a motor vehicle."

Toronto Police Const. Clint Stibbe spoke on CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Tuesday. He spoke to host Matt Galloway live by phone telephone as he wrote out a $280 ticket for a driver who was using a cellphone while driving on University Avenue.

Stibbe said drivers can be charged even if they only use their device while stopped at a red light.

"Any time you're in a driven lane and you touch that device, you've committed the offence," said Stibbe. He said many drivers continue to use electronic devices at the wheel despite increased fines and demerit points.

"They don't believe that what they're doing is a problem," he said.

Transportation Minister Glen Murray said the Ontario government had consulted with police, the Canadian Automobile Association and other stakeholders before bringing the proposed legislation forward.

Parts of several private members bills have been incorporated into the legislation.

"This is an all-party bill and I hope it will quickly gain the confidence of this house," he said.

Because of the Liberals’ minority position in the legislature, the government would need the assistance of at least one other party in order to pass the proposed legislation.

The same proposed legislation would allow judges to impose fines of $300 to $1,000 in cases where a so-called dooring occurs — when a cyclist is struck by the door of a vehicle. In this case, a person convicted of this offence would receive three demerit points.

The province would also like to see drivers leave at least one metre of space when passing a cyclist.

Drivers would also have to yield the entire roadway to people crossing the road at pedestrian and school crossings. The province would also like to pave the way for new types of pedestrian-crossing devices to be installed on low-speed and low-volume roads.

The province also wants to introduce changes related to impaired driving, so that drivers who "repeatedly" drive with an elevated blood-alcohol level would be forced to complete an education program and participate in an alcohol treatment and monitoring program.

The government is also seeking to extend a program that allows drivers to serve a reduced licence suspension with the installation of an interlock ignition device.

Another part of the proposed legislation is aimed at providing greater clarity on the medical conditions that would prohibit individuals from driving. But the government would also like to allow drivers with medical suspensions to hang on to their driver’s licences for identification purposes, or for when they can drive again.

There are also proposed changes relating to truck, bus and vehicle safety, including a requirement that drivers slow down and move over for tow trucks responding to collisions — just as drivers are required to pull over for emergency vehicles at present.