Ontario increases penalties for drivers who text, email, talk on handheld phone

WATCH ABOVE: The new law allows police to impound vehicles of those suspected to be high behind the wheel. Catherine McDonald has more. 

TORONTO – Ontario unanimously passed legislation Tuesday increasing penalties for drivers who text or use a handheld phone while on the road, and who open their door into the path of a cyclist.

The update to the Highway Traffic Act also imposes a one-metre distance rule between motor vehicles and bicycles – “where practicable” – and will force drivers to wait until pedestrians completely cross the road at school crossings.

READ MORE: The growing epidemic of distracted driving

Using handheld electronic devices while driving has been outlawed in Ontario since 2009, except for 911 emergency calls.

Fines for distracted drivers will increase from the old range of $60 to $500 to between $300 to $1,000, plus three demerit points.

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“If they do it, and they’re caught doing it, there will be consequences,” said Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca. “But if they’re going to do it, they have to understand how dangerous it is, how they’re putting themselves, the passengers in their car, pedestrians and cyclists, at really, really horrific risk.”

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A 2014 survey by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health 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 previous year.

“I think it’s really important for those who are just starting to drive to recognize this is horribly dangerous,” said Del Duca. “It’s not worth it.”

INVESTIGATION: Toronto cyclists’ ‘dooring zone’

Fines for opening a door into the path of a cyclist will increase to the same amounts as for distracted driving, and motorists must leave a one-metre distance when passing bicycles. Cyclists will be allowed to use the paved shoulders on non-400 series provincial highways.

“We call it sharing the road for a reason,” said Del Duca. “Cyclists have a responsibility. So do motorists.”

Fines will increase from $20 to between $60 and $500 for bicyclists who do not use a light and reflectors or reflective material.

The bill also requires that drivers wait until pedestrians completely cross the road at school crossings and at crosswalks with pedestrian-operated crossing lights, and not yield just half the roadway as required under the old law. Municipalities will be allowed to install more pedestrian crossing devices on low-speed and low-volume roads.

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READ MORE: Toronto’s most dangerous intersections for pedestrians

Brian Patterson of the Ontario Safety League applauded the government’s efforts to make the roads safer for everyone.

“People will be better able to understand that we want safe, focused drivers that protect both cyclists and pedestrians, and that there are obligations on those parties as well,” he said.

Drivers impaired by drugs will face the same penalties as drivers impaired by alcohol, with escalating roadside suspensions of three to 90 days. Vehicles could be impounded for seven days and offenders could be required to install an ignition interlock device to prevent them from driving while impaired.

Government statistics show over 45 per cent of drivers killed in Ontario were found to have drugs or a combination of drugs and alcohol in their system.

The updated law also clarifies the mandatory and discretionary requirements by doctors to report unfit drivers, and allows for reporting by other, qualified medical professionals. People with a medical suspension will be allowed to retain their driver’s licence card for identification purposes and for when they are eligible to drive again.

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