POLITICS

Ontario to increase fines for texting, using hand-held phone while driving

10/21/2014 10:52 EDT | Updated 12/21/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - The Ontario government vowed to crack down on distracted drivers and those who get behind the wheel while high on drugs as it prepared to reintroduce legislation Tuesday that would make the province's roads safer.

A number of measures in the bill — such as stiffer fines and penalties for texting while driving — were originally contained in an earlier version which died when the June 12 election was called.

But the latest version of the bill includes measures to crackdown on driving while high on drugs.

That included sanctions for drug-impaired driving that would see license suspensions ranging from three to 90 days, with motorists forced to take driving education or get treatment, among other measures.

Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca said that in 2011 more than 45 per cent of driver fatalities in the province had drugs or drugs and alcohol in their system.

He said the province is working with the Mounties to bring in a device similar to a breathalyzer to check if a driver is high while behind the wheel.

"Over the next number of months I am confident that we will have technology that will provide us and our police officers with that same sense of scientific backup for the suspicion, the reasonable belief and the failure" of a standard roadside sobriety test, he said.

Meanwhile, Del Duca also wanted the bill to help people break the habit of texting or talking on a hand-held phone while behind the wheel.

The legislation, if passed, would increase the maximum fine for distracted driving to $1,000 and impose three demerit upon a conviction.

It would also add distracted driving to the existing list of novice driver conditions and require drivers to wait until a pedestrian has completely crossed the road before proceeding at school crossings and pedestrian crossovers.

The bill is also aiming to make the roads safer for cyclists by increasing fines and demerits for drivers who door cyclists, and requiring all drivers to maintain a distance of one metre when passing cyclists, where practical.

The proposed legislation drew a lukewarm response from Ontario's New Democrats, with party leader Andrea Horwath saying the Liberal government was sending mixed signals with its crackdown on distracted drivers at the same time a provincial agency is putting billboards on highways that have been criticized as being distracting for motorists.

"You can't on the one hand say you're concerned about something and then have the other hand doing something exactly the opposite of what you're talking about," she said.

Ontario Provincial Police say distracted driving is becoming the No. 1 killer on the roads, accounting for more deaths last year than impaired driving or speed-related accidents.

A recent Centre for Addiction and Mental Health survey found more than one-third of licensed Ontario students in Grades 10 to 12 admitted to having texted while driving at least once in the past year.

Using handheld devices to text, email or talk while driving, except for 911 calls, has been banned in Ontario since 2009.

Current legislation allows for fines ranging from $60 to $500, which would jump to $300 to $1,000 under the new legislation.