Should distracted driving be a federal crime? Justice minister now open to discussion

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Distracted Driving: Justice minister open to discussing criminalization
WATCH: Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says she's willing to discuss treating distracted driving the same as impaired driving. Quebec's premier wants it to happen and the governments of Manitoba and B.C. say they're willing to consider it. Vassy Kapelos reports – Sep 8, 2016

The federal justice minister is changing her tone on the possibility of criminalizing distracted driving.

Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said Thursday she’ll be discussing the issue when she meets with her provincial counterparts next month, after having previously deferred the issue of criminalization to the provincial governments.

But she appeared to switch her stance after Quebec’s premier called on her government, a day earlier, to make distracted driving a crime under the Criminal Code of Canada.

READ MORE: Winnipeg family of man killed in texting-and-driving crash demands change

“I recognize the premier’s call,” Raybould-Wilson said. “We certainly underscore and uphold the need of and the value of ensuring that we have safety on our roads.”

Calls are growing for stiffer penalties as the number of deaths caused by distracted drivers are now outpacing those caused by drunk drivers in some provinces.

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In Ontario, the number of distracted driving-related deaths was double those caused by impaired driving: between the start of the year and the middle of August, the Ontario Provincial Police investigated 38 deaths related to inattentive drivers compared to 19 caused by drunk driving. The RCMP in British Columbia said Thursday fatal distracted driving-related crashes are also outnumbering drunk driving crashes in the province.

READ MORE: Distracted driving deaths outpacing impaired driving deaths

“I recognize the stats,” Wilson-Raybould said, “I want to underscore I hear the concerns and share them.”

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

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

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard called distracted driving “a recipe for disaster.”

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“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,” he said in Gatineau, Que. Wednesday.

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Quebec was the sole province to have made such a call, but leaders in other provinces say they are interested in engaging in a discussion about curbing the deadly habit.

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In response to questions from Global News, officials in five provinces have indicated more needs to be done to discourage people from using their phones while they’re behind the wheel.

“Ultimately, it will be up to the federal government to make any decisions regarding the Criminal Code, but we welcome the ongoing discussions between our partners in other jurisdictions and at the federal level on how we can work together to make our roads safer,” Nova Scotia Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan said in a statement to Global News.

“While the Government of Manitoba is not actively pursuing changes to the criminal code, we are open to a dialogue with our provincial and federal counterparts to determine the best approach to addressing this very real public safety concern,” Manitoba Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said in a statement.

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READ MORE: Ottawa police charge woman featured in viral texting video

In Ontario, where police laid nearly 800 distracted driving charges over the Labour Day long weekend, Ministry of Transportation spokesperson Andrea Ernesaks said the provincial government “will continue to works as hard as possible to discourage texting and driving.

Nova Scotia recently doubled fines for distracted driving and added a penalty of four demerit points.

B.C. Solicitor General Mike Morris said he’d be “curious to see the argument” for criminalization, but he thinks the province’s tougher distracted driving penalties — $543 for the first offence and $888 offence, plus four demerit points — will help bring the number of distracted driving-related accidents down.

“Let’s see what happens after 18 months or so,” he said. “If the numbers still aren’t coming down and we’re still seeing the death and injuries on the highways, then we’re going to have to take more drastic action and that could include criminal code provisions.”

READ MORE: Top 5 misconceptions about distracted driving as seasonal campaign kicks off

The Alberta government, meanwhile, has not considered whether it would get behind federal criminalization of distracted driving.

Officials in New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan and did not respond to Global News in time for publication.

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