Quebec’s Couillard calls on Ottawa to criminalize distracted driving

Click to play video: 'Distracted driving: Should it be a criminal offence?'
Distracted driving: Should it be a criminal offence?
WATCH: Police forces routinely hand out fines for distracted driving, but is it time to take things a step further and make it a criminal offence?Vassy Kapelos reports – Sep 7, 2016

Quebec’s premier is calling on the federal government to make distracted driving an offence under the criminal code, much like impaired driving.

“We have to consider this activity, texting while driving, as equivalent to impaired driving because, obviously, you’re not paying attention to what’s going on ahead of you while you’re doing this,” Philippe Couillard told reporters at his Liberal Party caucus retreat in Gatineau, Que.

WATCH: Justice minister says distracted driving issue is an ‘ongoing conversation’

Click to play video: 'Justice minister says distracted driving issue is an ‘ongoing conversation’'
Justice minister says distracted driving issue is an ‘ongoing conversation’

Right now, punishment for texting while depends on where in Canada you live. Depending on the province, you can be fined anywhere from $80 to $1,200 and be docked three to five demerit points.

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Couillard wants Ottawa to take it a step further, beyond provincial jurisdiction.

“They have to take action,” he said of the Trudeau government.

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So far, the Quebec government is alone in its quest to see distracted driving criminalized.

The Canadian Automobile Association, on the other hand, wants strict penalties for distracted drivers but stops short of supporting a call to make it a criminal offence.

“We want to make sure penalties that are out there can be enforced,” CAA spokesman Elliott Silverstein said in an interview with Global News. “Because if we create penalties that can’t be enforced, it’s harder to get the public to buy in.”

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READ MORE: Distracted driving deaths outpacing impaired driving deaths

Karen Bowman leads “Drop It and Drive”, a group whose mission is to “end distracted driving by making it as socially unacceptable as drinking and driving”.

But she also isn’t convinced criminalization is a magic bullet.

“That’s one of the issues that we’re struggling with,” Bowman said. “There is no one answer; if there was, the issue wouldn’t be there.”

Lawyer Brian Eberdt understands the hesitancy.

“A criminal conviction is a very serious thing,” he said. “There may be some concern on behalf of the populace generally because a lot of people have been doing this.”

Changing a behaviour that has become habit is hard, and so is prosecuting it.

“It’s the same difficulty you have with any criminal offence, you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” Eberdt said. “In the absence of dashboard cameras, it’s very difficult to conclusively determine whether or not a cell phone was used.”

WATCH: Distracted driving message not getting through to drivers. Mike Drolet reports.
Click to play video: 'Distracted driving: Message not getting through to drivers'
Distracted driving: Message not getting through to drivers

Eberdt says there’s a host of tools provinces can still employ before looking to criminalization, including greater fines or suspending a distracted driver’s license.

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It appears the federal government would tend to agree.

A spokesperson for the Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould made it clear Ottawa isn’t considering make distracted driving a criminal code offence.

“We thank the provinces and territories for their leadership on this issue,” Valérie Gervais said. “Using a handheld cellphone while driving, or texting while driving, can already be prosecuted under existing provisions of the Criminal Code when this behaviour becomes ‘dangerous driving’.”

Dangerous driving convictions carry sentences of up to 10 years behind bars for causing bodily harm and up to 14 years for causing death.

But it’s difficult though to get any statistics on how many dangerous driving charges or convictions in Canada have been for distracted driving.

Global News asked the federal government and the provincial governments in B.C. and Ontario, but none were able to provide numbers.

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