Q&A: Toronto Police Sergeant Brett Moore, on Ontario’s new, harsher distracted driving penalties

Q&A: Toronto Police Sergeant Brett Moore, on Ontario’s new, harsher distracted driving penalties

Ontario has had laws that restrict cellphone use while driving for years, but on January 1 the consequences for ignoring those rules got significantly more serious. We spoke with Sergeant Brett Moore, a spokesperson for Toronto Police Traffic Services, about the new penalties—and about what drivers need to do in order to avoid incurring them.

What exactly are the new distracted driving penalties, and how do they differ from the old ones?
Before, it was a maximum $490 ticket. That was it, as well as demerit points. Now there’s a range of fines, depending on how many convictions for distracted driving you have. The first offence is $615 dollars minimum, and the court has the ability to raise that to $1,000. Plus, now there’s a three-day license suspension. That was never in place before. On a second conviction, the justice of the peace has the ability to assign a fine up to $2,000, and the suspension increases to seven days. For a third offence, the justice of the peace can raise the fine to a maximum of $3,000, and the license suspension ramps up to 30 days.

Maybe we should get into exactly what we mean by distracted driving. Is there a technical definition of the term?
As it relates to the Highway Traffic Act, what people think of is the cellphone. And that’s what the offence is under the Highway Traffic Act: using a handheld communication or entertainment device while driving.

Supposing I have my phone in my lap and I’m just stealing the occasional glance at a Google map or something. Would that trigger an offence under the law, in your opinion?
I guess it depends how much of a tightrope walker you are. You’re just playing games. You’re rolling the dice. “Look at me, it’s out of my hands, officer.” The real intention of the legislation is to be hands-free. If you hit a bump and the phone falls on the floor, what are you doing with that phone? Are you just going to let it lie there? The law requires us to put that phone in a fixed bracket on the windshield, or something like that.

Right. Because, to be clear, there’s a pretty simple way to avoid breaking the law, and it’s to get some kind of dashboard-mounted fixture that your phone would sit in, so you could use it without hands. You’re allowed to use your hands to activate the device, but that’s it.
That’s exactly it. CAA did some research a little while back that found any driver reaching for an object is nine times more likely to be involved in a crash. It’s super critical that we don’t play games with the rules. But even if you have a nicely secured dash-mounted cellphone holder, and even if you’re not breaking the law, you’re still distracted. Research says that you are. It’s called inattentive blindness.

Should we have legislation that’s even more stringent, in terms of what it allows people to do while they’re driving?
I leave law decisions up to the lawmakers. I suspect, as research on distracted driving becomes more available, that we’ll continue to adapt as required.

The real point of these new penalties is to deter people from using their phones while driving in the first place. Do you think they’ll be effective at that?
If $1,000 doesn’t mean a lot to you, because you’ve got the means to pay that fine, maybe a three-day license suspension is a significant consequence that you’ll pay attention to. Or maybe the $490 set fine didn’t really get your attention, but $3,000 will.

How do police even catch distracted drivers?
At serious collisions, we are very cognizant of the cyber fingerprint that’s left behind. Our collision reconstructionists and our hit-and-run investigators are turning their minds more and more and more to phones and cameras.

So in some cases distracted driving might be determined after the fact, by someone forensically examining a cell phone to see whether it was active at the time of a collision.
Exactly. Officers have to get production orders and search warrants from the courts, but definitely that is an avenue that we are very aware of.

What are you doing to catch distracted drivers before they end up in collisions?
One thing we’re doing is getting our community volunteers, our auxiliary officers, to go out and observe. They can’t give you a ticket, but we’re asking them to make note of plates, vehicles and drivers. We’re going to send a letter home to the registered owner of each vehicle they catch, to let them know that community members are paying attention to distracted driving and it’s not tolerated.

So people will be receiving letters saying that someone saw them driving with a cell phone in their hand?
Yup, that’s our idea. This is the first time we’ve done it for distracted driving, so we’re going to see the response we get back.

Have you used a tactic like that for any other kind of crime, or is this something new that you’re trying out?
We do that for driving complaints. So, if a community member makes an online driving complaint to the Toronto Police, we send a letter home to the registered owner saying we received a complaint. It’s just a nice heads up. Maybe the car was on loan to somebody, and the owner of the vehicle might like to know what’s going on.

What else are you doing?
We’re utilizing alternative vehicles. We went to our fleet manager when we were planning this campaign and said, whaddya got? They outdid themselves. They provided us with pickup trucks and Sprinter vans, and outfitted them with lights and sirens. We’re raising officers’ point of view so they can see into car windows. And we’re going to be in unmarked vehicles that blend in with regular traffic. These vehicles are just on loan to traffic services. We’ve borrowed them from other units that are using them currently, and we’ve just adapted them for traffic use.

How long will this business with the letters and the vans be going on?
This particular campaign goes until the 20th, but the work happens every day. We investigated over 10,000 instances of distracted driving last year. Divide that by 365, that’s like 30 investigations a day. Not insignificant, but nowhere near the scope of the challenge that we’re working towards.

How are you going to keep catching distracted drivers after those special vehicles go back to their home units?
Foot patrol and bicycle patrol are the best tools an officer has to look for distracted drivers. Because of congestion and traffic lights and everything else, officers quite often just stand out in traffic and look. Obviously that’s not conducive to a suburban road where speeds are up to 60 kilometres, but it’s a fantastic technique in traffic downtown.

Imagine being pulled over by an officer on foot.
Just a rap on the door. You’re completely stunned, because you’re distracted and not paying attention to what’s around you.