British Columbia Analysis

'Hard-to-beat' distracted driving tickets shock drivers who think they're safe at a stop

Drivers can’t resist phone's 'siren song' say police who have handed out $46M in tickets since 2010

Yvette Brend - CBC News

May 17, 2017

B.C.'s tough distracted driving laws give police wide latitude to ticket if they see a driver touching or looking at a phone. (David Horemans/CBC)

Masoud Jahani was "shocked" when he lost a fight to overturn a distracted driving ticket he got for plugging his cell phone into a charger while stopped at a North Vancouver intersection in 2015.

Jahani used his legal training and spent $700 appealing the ticket in B.C. Supreme Court but lost this month, because B.C.'s stringent distracted driving laws allow wide latitude for police to target any driver who touches or looks at a digital device.


"How does this stop distracted driving? I'm exhausted. I'm not sure I'll take it further now," said Jahani, who is one of thousands of drivers in the province hit with $46-million worth of tickets since 2010.

That's when B.C. brought in tough laws to try to curb distraction-caused crashes — and they are proving impervious to challenges.

"I haven't heard of any successful challenges to this law. It was written very well. I know in other parts of the country the laws get challenged and overturned frequently.

But this law — they thought this through very carefully," said Mark Milner, road safety manager for the Insurance Corporation of B.C. (ICBC).

The penalties

Research from the National Academy of Science in the U.S. says 90 per cent of road crashes are caused by impairment, fatigue or distraction.

But what's less clear is whether fining drivers who text while stopped at an intersection prevents crashes, even though that's where most B.C. drivers are getting nailed.

Stuck in traffic at a construction site? Don't text. It's illegal and police are looking to catch you. (David Horemans/CBC)

And penalties keep rising.

Fines in B.C. were hiked from $167 to $368 — and four penalty points — in June 2016.

For a first infraction, drivers pay an extra $175 penalty, bringing the total cost for one ticket to $543.

Get caught twice and the price escalates to $888.

Two infractions in one year will cost a driver $1,431.

That's more than the $1,000 fine for impaired driving but comes with fewer points and no criminal record.

Distracted driving is not a criminal offence but can lead to a licence suspension for a novice or drivers with other infractions.

How drivers are caught

Catching distracted drivers is easy because they are distracted, say police.

Officers pose as construction workers, window washers or simply cycle up to get a good look at the driver, then radio ahead to another unit that pulls over people seen using their devices.

Beware constructions sites and stop lights as that's where traffic officers lurk looking to snag drivers who glance down at their phones. (David Horemans/CBC)

"These operations are so successful. We catch so many violators in such a short period of time that it's extremely rewarding," said Sgt. Lorne Lecker of the RCMP's Deas Island Traffic Services, adding they often run out of enough officers to net the huge numbers caught.

"You get a lot of Academy Award level acting. People indignant that it was not the phone. It was a mistake. A lot of feigned ignorance," said Lecker, who has personally handed out 1,772 tickets since 2010.

"It's a very, very hard ticket to beat," said Lecker.

"We have people come to court all the time waving their phone bills to prove they weren't on the phone. We don't want to see it. The judge does not want to see it. Just touching the phone is an offence."

Put the phone away

He urges people to lock their phone in the glove compartment or leave it in the trunk.

"People simply cannot resist that siren song of the phone going off."

Despite flurries of distracted driving tickets — 306,000 since 2010 — ICBC admits drivers aren't stopping.

So, if the goal of all these penalties is prevention, the lucrative blitzes may themselves be proof that, so far, even spectacular fines don't appear to curb distracted driving.

Police urge people to lock their phone in the glove compartment or leave it in a pocket to avoid the temptation of looking at a text when the message chimes. (David Horemans/CBC)

Top excuses that do not work

Simple rules to avoid ticket

Safe device use

A handheld device can be used in a car if it's mounted on the dash and does not obstruct the view of the road, but the driver must not touch it. (David Horemans/CBC)

B.C. brought in distracted driving laws in 2010 and since then has stiffened the penalties from $167 to $368. (David Horemans/CBC)


Yvette Brend

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist, Jack Webster City Mike award winner 2017. @ybrend

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