A sweeping new law aims to equalize users of Nova Scotia’s roads and highways – defining pedestrians, cyclists and certain others as “vulnerable road users” and doubling fines for accidents that seriously injure or kill them.
Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines said the intent of the change in the new Traffic Safety Act is to provide better protection and to signal that roadways are used by more than just motorized vehicles.
The idea is to introduce the concept of “access for all,” Hines told reporters Wednesday.
In addition to the increased fines, drivers convicted of injuring someone deemed vulnerable would be also be subject to an automatic suspension of up to six months.
“That will raise the profile and make sure that drivers are respectful of the vulnerable road users,” said Hines.
Others considered vulnerable on or near a highway under the act include construction workers, police and other emergency workers, drivers of farm vehicles, and motorcyclists.
Kelsey Lane, transportation coordinator for Halifax’s Ecology Action Centre, described the change as “huge” and said it should help make roads and highways safer for everyone.
“We have a lot of work to do in terms of changing the physical infrastructure of the road to make it safer, but absolutely… this is really important to make sure that this is an inclusive space, that we are thinking about it as a public space and not just a place for somebody in a vehicle.”
Lane said even the name change of the act is significant because it creates “more equalization” as far as rights on roads and highways.
Hines said the proposed replacement for the Motor Vehicle Act would also clamp down on the use of devices that lead to distracted driving.
The current law only covers texting while driving and the changes would ensure any device, including cellphones and global positioning systems, would only be used hands-free, with fines increased from $295 to $410.
Paul Arsenault, director of special projects at Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, said the fact the law only covered texting created legal issues.
Arsenault said the department was aware of a few instances where people were able to get off in court because they used a cellphone for something other than texting. He said the onus has been on the police and the Crown to prove someone was texting.
“The new legislation clarifies that,” said Arsenault.
“Now the law will change to the fact that you simply cannot have a device in your hand whether you are using it, holding it or whatever. Which is consistent with other jurisdictions in Canada.”
According to the latest provincial data, there were 5,108 convictions for distracted cellphone driving in 2014, while 3,396 charges were laid in 2017.
Amanda Dean, Atlantic vice-president of the Insurance Bureau of Canada, called the proposed law “an incredible improvement.”
She said including greater detail around the ban on handheld devices would provide clarity and awareness.
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Dean pointed out that people are currently doing “way to much behind the wheel.”
“So holding any device, manipulating any device while we’re driving – not a great idea,” she said.
“It’s a very powerful piece of machinery that we are in control of when we are driving down the road and that’s incredibly irresponsible behaviour.”
Dean also said accidents caused by distracted motorists are driving up premium costs, although she couldn’t provide statistics.
“The more claims that there are, the bigger the impact will be on premiums and anything that can improve road safety, anything that can help reduce collisions, fatalities and injuries, the industry is incredibly supportive of.”
In anticipation of the increased use of autonomous vehicles in coming years, the province has also included a provision that drivers must maintain control of the vehicles at all times, meaning they must be in the driver’s seat and ready to take the wheel should something go wrong.
The Transportation Department says currently there are only 112 vehicles with self-driving features on the province’s roads.
Another change would give municipalities the ability to enforce excessive noise caused by motor vehicles through bylaws.
Hines said it will take about two years from passage before all new regulations and the new law are in place.
Premier Stephen McNeil said the plan is to pass the legislation during the current sitting of the legislature.