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New fines, more enforcement in store for distracted drivers

Texting and driving, long a no-no, will earn even larger penalties as police move to enforce more stringent laws.

If your New Year’s resolutions didn’t include spending less time fussing with your smart phone, at least while driving, you may want to consider adding it to the list: the province has jacked fines for distracted driving as of January 1.

Drivers caught using a handheld device will now be charged up to $1,000 –double the previous fine of $490. Additional penalties include three demerit points and a three-day license suspension.

A second conviction within five years will cost up to $2,000, six demerit points and a seven-day license suspension, and a third and subsequent convictions result in fines up to $3,000, six demerit points, and a 30-day license suspension.

“Distracted driving is certainly one of the highest causes of collisions that we have in Ontario,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Hinsperger of the Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS). “It’s been an ongoing problem provincially for several years. It was changed just in January because I think provincially, they saw a need.”

WRPS laid 1381 distracted driving charges in 2018 alone. As the usage of cell phones increases, so does the number of associated incidents – deaths from distracted driving have doubled since 2000, police report.

When it comes to ticketing drivers, what constitutes distracted driving?

“Texting and talking on a cell phone are the most common ones,” said Hinsperger. “But it’s also having handheld entertainment device visible to the driver as well – a display screen, that sort of thing. So that might include the onboard small TV sets or the computer screen, anything like that is also a violation.”

Other things that divert a driver’s attention away from the road include eating, drinking, or even personal grooming while driving. This would be reflected in a careless driving charge, says Hinsperger. There are exceptions to the rule under specific conditions.

“Having a GPS mounted in the vehicle and your route is displayed; that’s an exemption, so that’s not an offense,” said Hinsperger. “The satellite tracking systems for commercial vehicles, those are exempt. So there’s a number of exemptions with respect to that as well. So it’s not a blanket violation.”

It is crucial to note that this rule applies whenever one is operating the vehicle, and there are no exemptions when the car is simply stopped.

“There’s this misconception out there that because a vehicle is stopped – for instance, at a red light, a stop sign or an intersection – that now you can suddenly text,” said Hinsperger. “That’s not the case. It’s just as much of a violation there as it is when you’re actually driving.”

He has a few tips for avoiding distractions.

“Just put the phone away when you’re driving, period, and it shouldn’t be a problem,” said Hinsperger. “I know people who are tempted to use their cell phone actually put it in a bag and put it in the backseat or put it in the trunk. If you’re able to pull over on a safe place on the road where you’re lawfully parked, then you can use a cell phone and text.”

Other tips include programming your route or starting your playlist before you begin your trip. Since texts increase the likelihood of an accident, they can wait until the end of the drive.

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