Ontario Distracted Driving Fine Stops Short Of Being A Real Solution

Distracted driving has been branded the “new” drunk driving.

It seems that every time you turn on the news, there’s another story about the damage and loss caused by distracted driving. The carnage caused by distracted drivers is only growing as access to technology increases.

These days, almost everyone has a mobile phone or cellular device. What’s more, it appears that people are growing more and more dependent on their use.

Don’t believe me? Then just take a look around you the next time you find yourself in public. Take note of the number of people staring into the glowing abyss of their phones. Mobile phone use is ubiquitous and drivers can’t seem to resist the temptation of touching their phones while behind the wheel.

This is only compounded by the fact that attitudes around distracted driving aren’t changing fast enough. Many people — particularly younger generations who are adept at multitasking with technology — don’t seem to think that texting and driving is all that big of a deal. They certainly don’t think it is as stigmatizing and dangerous as drinking and driving.

Increased penalties do little to change social behaviour and attitudes.

But it is as dangerous.

The Canadian Automobile Association reports that a driver is 23 times more likely to become involved in an accident if they are texting and driving. Talking on a mobile phone and driving increases their risk four to five times.

Given these statistics, it’s no surprise that accidents, injuries and deaths are on the rise. In Ontario, government statistics indicate that distracted driving is the cause for twice as many collisions today as it was in 2000.

The current penalty for distracted driving in Ontario involves a fine between $490 and $1,000 for a one-time offense. This is the same whether an accident occurred or not. Where there was an accident, there is no distinction made between hitting an inanimate object — like say, a parked vehicle or a fire hydrant — and a human being.

A cyclist going west with traffic on Danforth Avenue in Toronto on March 17, 2014.

The government feels this is too lax.

For this reason, it’s decided to increase provincial fines. The most dramatic of these is an up-to-$50,000 fine for drivers who cause the death of another person through carelessness or distracted driving.

But this comes with its own host of problems.

There are legal concerns that this law is “too” tough. A fine of $50,000 is not only hefty, it’s potentially penal in nature. There is an argument to be made that the province is encroaching on the jurisdiction of the federal government and creating criminal law under the guise of provincial regulations, which isn’t allowed.

There is a chance that the law could be struck down as a result.

There are legal concerns that this law is “too” tough.

After all, there should be parity between provinces when penalties this stiff are involved.

Punishments like these are more properly doled out through the Criminal Code. The federal government is responsible for passing legislation to do this — and perhaps this is something that it should seriously consider doing.

Otherwise, provinces are likely to become engaged in a legislative horse race to pass the harshest laws in the least amount of time. This has long-term legal negligence written all over it.

It’s also important to consider practical concerns, like delay. When penalties escalate, the motivation to dispute alleged infractions does as well.

People will be more likely to hire lawyers and to seek their day in court. Onerous penalties like these are more likely to create further delays on an already over-burdened court system. There are practical concerns about how this will play out for taxpayers.

This is only exacerbated by the fact that the laws themselves are likely to be subject to legal challenges, which will create further delays, and cost more time and money.

Unlikely to have lasting effect on problem over time

Finally, we have to consider the practical effect of this legislation.

While the threat of being fined more than your average annual income should act as a big deterrent on drivers, it’s not likely to have a lasting effect over time. Increased penalties do little to change social behaviour and attitudes.

Like impaired driving, studies show that the most effective ways to deter drivers from engaging in problematic behaviour are through public education, visual enforcement and regular media coverage. It would be responsible for the government to invest in these proven mechanisms, rather than passing potentially unsound provincial laws.

At the end of the day, the goal is to reduce distracted driving and make our roads a safer place to be — but only time will tell if this Ontario endeavour will meet its mark.

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Author: Sarah E. Leamon