11/05/2013 10:34 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Calls growing louder for stiffer penalties for motorists using cellphones

TORONTO - Calls are growing louder for tougher penalties against Ontario motorists caught using their cellphones and electronic devices while driving.

Distracted driving has "definitely" overtaken drunk driving as a serious danger on the roads, said the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

"We've seen with long weekends, four times as many people being charged with distracted driving than with impaired driving," Doug DeRabbie, IBC's director of government relations, said Tuesday.

Advocates are urging the governing Liberals to impose larger fines and demerit points for drivers convicted of distracted driving.

Distracted driving is a growing trend in an age where almost everyone has an cellphone, said Elliott Silverstein of the Canadian Automobile Association.

"People may not be able to see particular signals going through intersections, they're rear-ending other people not having enough time to stop for various situations," he said.

Witnessing an accident where an 84-year-old woman was rear-ended by a distracted driver at a red light led Ottawa resident Rick Levesque to start a petition in August asking for stiffer penalties.

His wife was also rear-ended six years ago by someone who was texting while driving, he said. She still has neck issues and dizzy spells.

"It just needs to stop," Levesque said. "I just think that somebody needs to do something and nobody has been."

Other provinces and territories have already started using demerit points to help enforce their laws, which Levesque said will go a long way towards reducing distracted driving by affecting insurance rates.

A private member's bill that proposes to bring in these changes received all party support last week in the legislature. But such bills rarely become law unless they win the backing of the government.

Transportation Minister Glen Murray agreed that penalties need to be increased.

"So we will be bringing forward an action plan considering legislation and regulations, as well as education, in the very near future," he said in the legislature.

Alcohol-related deaths are dropping, while deaths attributed to distracted driving are on the way up, Murray said afterwards.

"Drunk driving is coming down, we're now about 50 per cent below the national average ... distracted driving is growing," he told reporters.

In 2010 — the most recent data available — there were 165 deaths in impaired driving collisions, according to the government. There were 65 drivers involved in fatal collisions who were deemed "inattentive" by police.

The province needs to apply the same lessons to distracted driving as it did to impaired driving, Murray said.

Four years ago, Ontario's governing Liberals banned drivers from using any hand-held electronic devices to text, email or talk while driving, except for 911 calls. The province's top court says it's illegal to even hold a phone while driving.

Drivers are also forbidden from using portable video or DVD players. Global positioning systems are allowed, as long as they're properly secured to the dashboard.

Fines start at $155 in Ontario, but unlike six provinces and two territories, there are no demerit points attached.

All provinces and territories, save Nunavut, ban drivers from using cellphones while driving, according to the CAA. Fines range from $100 to $400.

Levesque said about 700 to 800 people have signed his petition.