Should distracted driving be a criminal offence? Quebec urges Ottawa to consider it

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WATCH ABOVE: Quebec transport minister Laurent Lessard floated the idea of making it illegal for people to use their cell phones while driving. As Global's Matt Grillo reports, if passed, drivers could face harsher penalties – Aug 25, 2016

Quebec’s new transport minister wants his federal counterpart Marc Garneau to examine the possibility of making it a criminal offence to use a cellphone while driving.

Laurent Lessard raised the issue during a press briefing on Wednesday morning, according to La Presse Canadienne.

“Let (Garneau) look at what elements of criminalization would be involved,” Lessard said. “It is his responsibility, we will discuss it. This will be the agenda … I will ask him to analyze it.”

Currently distracted driving legislation in Quebec, like most provinces in Canada, falls under the provincial highway safety act and comes with a fine or driving penalty.

READ MORE: Widow warns of texting and driving dangers

“It is an addiction to this and on the road it is a danger,”  Ferland told Global News. “When you are impaired by alcohol you cannot drive safely. If you are impaired by your cell phone you ain’t going to drive safely too.”

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Lessard’s comments follow on the heels of a report by coroner Michel Ferland on the death of 28-year-old Jimmy Rotondo, who was killed after rear-ending a truck in Laval in March. The report showed Rotondo was texting moments before the fatal accident.

Ferland called texting behind the wheel “a scourge” and urged the federal government to make it a criminal offence. He also called for fines to be increased and for an increase in demerit points for cellphone use while driving from four to nine.

What are the penalties for distracted driving?

Police forces across Canada have been dealing for years with the scourge of distracted driving that in some provinces has surpassed impaired driving as the leading cause of road fatalities.

British Columbia and Ontario have banned the use of hand-held communications and electronic entertainment devices while driving. Alberta expands its legislation beyond hand-held electronic devices to include other forms of driver distraction, including eating, drinking, reading, writing and personal grooming.

READ MORE: One in four deaths on B.C. roads due to distracted driving: ICBC

Statistics released in 2015 by the Ontario Provincial Police found there were 69 distracted driving fatalities on OPP-patrolled roads compared to the 45 impaired-driving fatalities. In B.C., the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia found that in 2014, 64 people were killed in impaired-driving related fatalities compared to 81 who were killed due to distracted driving.

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Meanwhile, figures from Saskatchewan Government Insurance show that 26 people were killed and nearly 600 injured in more than 3,300 collisions related to distracted driving in 2014, compared with 46 fatalities attributed to alcohol.

Fines for distracted driving can range from up to $145 and four demerit points in Quebec to $579 in Nova Scotia and up to $1,000 and three demerit points in Ontario. In B.C. a ticket for a first offence is $543 and $888 for the second offence, with four demerit points.

Changing the Criminal Code would be ‘overkill’

Lewis Smith, a spokesperson for the Canada Safety Council, said criminalising the use of a cellphone while driving would be “overkill.”

“These recommendations are a bit on the knee-jerk side,” said Lewis. “Obviously [distracted driving] is a big concern and it’s something we need to be addressing. But the question here is, will legislation help?

“People seem to agree that distracted driving and texting while driving is a problem, but they don’t see themselves as part of the problem. And that’s the disconnect we need to address.”

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Smith added that amending the criminal code could result in people who commit minor offences receiving a criminal history.

Andrew Gowing, a spokesperson for the federal justice department, said most provinces and territories (with the exception of Nunavut) have penalties for distracted driving and criminal charges can be laid when cases reach a level of dangerous or  careless driving.

“Using a hand-held cellphone while driving, or texting while driving, can already be prosecuted under existing provisions of the Criminal Code when this behaviour becomes ‘dangerous driving,’” Gowing said in an email.

Under the Criminal Code of Canada, dangerous driving causing bodily harm carries a maximum sentence of 10 years, while dangerous driving causing death carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.

Kristine D’Arbelles, a spokesperson for the Canadian Automobile Association, stopped short of approving calls for criminalization but said it’s part of an important conversation.

“Anything that draws attention to the issue of distracted driving and shows Canadians how serious this is is something that is important,” D’Arbelles said. “We find that distracted driving anecdotally is more dangerous than impaired driving.”

*With files from Jack Armstrong.

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