Saskatchewan’s new distracted driving fines disproportionately punish people in poverty: professor

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New distracted driving fines a disproportionate punishment for low-income people, Sask. academic says
WATCH: Some critics say higher distracted driving fines disproportionately affect people living in poverty – Feb 20, 2020

The new price tag of a distracted driving ticket in Saskatchewan is sure to put a dent in anyone’s pocketbook, but a local academic says it will hit vulnerable people hardest.

“We want to stop these behaviours by using punishment, but the problem is that not all populations are going to feel this equally,” said Scott Thompson, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Saskatchewan.

SGI says the fine for a first offence skyrocketed to $580 on Feb. 1, as the original $280 ticket wasn’t proving effective in discouraging people from driving distracted. A second offence costs $1,400 and a third, $2,100.

Last year, more than 10,000 distracted driving tickets were issued across the province, an SGI spokesperson said in a statement.

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In 2018, SGI said distracted driving was a factor in more than 6,000 collisions, causing 774 injuries and 22 deaths.

SGI acknowledged that distracted driving fines have increased substantially, but whether somebody finds themselves facing a costly fine depends on the decision to drive distracted.

“A lot of people say, ‘OK, well you shouldn’t do the crime unless you [can] do the time,’” Thompson told Global News.
“[But] when certain people are being punished way more than others and we have an inequality in our society, then we really need to look at the question of, ‘Is putting someone into debt a way of solving these types of problems, or is it the best way of solving these problems?’”

Saskatchewan RCMP handed out 87 distracted driving tickets in the first week of February — 86 for first charges and one for a second charge — totalling more than $51,000 in fines.

“When we break [the fine] down by monthly income, we can see a large disparity in how people are going to feel this,” Thompson said.
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Statistics Canada’s 2015 poverty line for Saskatoon is $38,110, so a $580 ticket is worth about 18 per cent of that monthly income.

The median income for a Saskatchewan household after tax is $65,784, according to the 2016 census data. Thompson noted a first distracted driving ticket would cost those households about 11 per cent of their monthly earnings.

Those who can’t or don’t want to pay provincial or municipal fines can work them off with volunteer labour.

The John Howard Society connects people with its community partners in Moose Jaw, Regina and Saskatoon, where they have up to six months to work off a ticket.

“It allows people who might unexpectedly have a fine to keep living their lives without having to … be broke because they’re spending all their money on a speeding ticket or a parking ticket,” said Shawn Fraser, CEO of the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan.

“It’s really a win-win for everybody, versus other punitive measures where you pay a fine or you go to jail… Your debt’s repaid, but no one really benefits.”

Last year, 1,908 people worked off 2,628 fines in Saskatoon, according to the society.

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Fraser said it seems many people are aware of the program, but he’d like to promote it further. He said it would be useful if police made people aware of the option to work off a fine.

Every hour of work is credited at minimum wage. It would take about 50 hours to work off a $580 ticket.

Thompson said working off tickets is a good alternative to paying out of pocket, but noted some people don’t have the capacity to spend hours volunteering on top of a full-time job and familial duties.

He pointed to Finland’s “day-fine” system, which bases fines on a person’s salary.

“You have a large, sliding scale so that everybody feels the punishment or the harm associated with these fines equally as a percentage of their income,” he said.

Income and debt are predictors for people’s future encounters with the criminal justice system, he said.

“We need to think very clearly about what sort of life path we want to send people on.”

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