Sarah Leamon: Police can allege distracted driving even if you aren't touching your phone

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      British Columbia is cracking down on distracted driving once again.

      Earlier this month, the province created new penalties to up the fine for first-time offenders. Starting June 1, your first offence for distracted driving will come at the hefty price of $543. A second offence will set you back $888 and a third more than $3,000.

      If you happen to be a particularly slow learner, then you'll be looking at a whopping $15,000 for your 10th offence. These fines are no joke.

      But the fines aren't the end of it.

      RoadSafetyBC also has the discretion of prohibiting your driver's licence under the Driver Improvement Program as a result of these offences. Experienced drivers with a previously clean driving record could be looking at prohibitions anywhere between three and six months—or more—after a second distracted driving ticket. For many drivers who depend on their licence to work, this could translate to financial disaster. 

      The government has cited public interest in support of these increased penalties. It says that distracted riving is the second leading contributing factor in vehicle fatalities in our province. Its statistics indicate that last year, 66 people died as a direct result of distracted driving, and more than 600 others were injured. 

      While statistics can be manipulated, there is no doubt that distracted driving equals danger. 

      Many have compared distracted driving to the daunting dangers of drinking and driving—and yet our fight against distracted driving has just begun. Drivers of all generations are prone to using their devices while behind the wheel. As the use of mobile devices becomes more prevalent, and as more people become more dependent on them, concerns around distracted driving are more legitimate than ever.

      But are these penalties really necessary?

      Answering this question involves a complex analysis of legislative intent, penalties, and deterrence. We have to ask ourselves whether increased monetary fines, and the threat of driving prohibitions, will really stop people from picking up their devices while driving. So far, it hasn't. Distracted driving is still on the rise, and many motorists still remain unclear about what, exactly, it is. 

      This uncertainty means that public education should be our first step…so allow me to be of assistance. 

      Contrary to popular belief, distracted driving is not limited to simply texting on or talking into your phone while driving. It actually covers a much broader range of actions and devices than that. Distracted driving can be alleged even if you aren't touching your phone. You could receive a ticket if you are talking on your phone on speakerphone while driving or even if your device is within grabbing distance. 

      According to the Motor Vehicle Act, distracted driving covers oral communication on a mobile device, holding a device in a position in which it may be used, or operating a device's functions while driving. And it isn't limited to phones. It also relates to iPods, mp3 players, iPads, or improperly mounted GPS units—anything capable of transmitting or receiving electronic signals. 

      And before reaching for that phone at a red light to check your messages, think again. Being stopped in an intersection is no defence to distracted driving. The only exceptions to the rules are if you are pulled over in a safe and lawful manner, out of the way of traffic, or if you are contacting emergency services like fire or ambulance. 

      But wait! There's more. 

      The rules will also vary depending on your class of driver's licence. Those holding a learner or new licence are even more restricted than others. They are not allowed to use hands-free devices, including Bluetooth, under the legislation, while others are.   

      I would encourage all drivers, if unsure about their licensing status and restrictions, to contact ICBC directly and make the necessary inquiries. 

      But even when people know the law and understand their rights, problems will inevitably arise. There are some who are bound to break the law—again and again and again. And that's where these penalties come into play.

      At the end of the day, these new, increased penalties are meant to act as both a specific and a general deterrent for all drivers. They are meant to send a clear message that distracted driving will not be tolerated, and that engaging in it will come with severe consequences. 

      And while everyone has the right to dispute their distracted driving allegation in court, the most effective way to avoid the trouble may be to simply leave the phone alone.