Police will use discretion in enforcing the province's new distracted-driving law when it comes into force next week, an Alberta traffic officer says.

That means typically giving out tickets only when there’s evidence someone’s driving was hampered by what they were doing on the side, said Barry Maron, acting staff sergeant with the Edmonton Police Service’s traffic squad.

"I would suggest to officers who ask me that they use a bit of discretion. You need some way of being able to tell a judge why what they were doing was distracting from the actual act of driving," Maron said Tuesday.

"It’s always better to have some examples, so they were speeding up and slowing down in traffic, the light turned green and they sat there for five or 10 seconds and all the traffic had gone away from the intersection."

Maron said the new law doesn’t require that, but it’s nevertheless "key" to "get convictions in court."

Staff Sgt. Michael Watterston of the Calgary Police Service said officers plan to issue plenty of warnings in the first month of enforcement, but anyone blatantly disregarding the law might find themselves with a $172 fine. 

"We’re not going to be jumping out from behind a tree to issue a ticket to someone glancing at a map at a stop sign," Watterston said. "However, if we see someone obviously flouting the law —driving with their knees, reading a map and sending a text — then they can certainly expect a ticket."

The police's priority, Watterston said, "is to ensure we do everything we can to keep our streets safe. This new legislation is a great tool for us to use to help us achieve this goal."

The Traffic Safety (Distracted Driving) Amendment Act was passed last year and comes into force Sept. 1. It prohibits a raft of activities while driving or cycling, including:

  • Holding, viewing or talking on a hand-held cellphone, or texting or emailing
  • Having a TV, computer or other display screen within view
  • Manually operating a GPS device
  • Reading books, newspapers or other texts, as well as writing or sketching
  • Personal grooming

There are exemptions. Drivers can use a GPS device if it’s voice-activated or if they programmed it before starting their trip. Viewing a car’s instrument gauges and status screens is OK. And it’s still legal to use radios for certain kinds of emergency, safety or delivery tasks, or to use a cellphone or radio to call 911.

But Alberta officials say the new law is still the toughest of its kind in the country — even if the province is the last to introduce a ban on using hand-held cellphones while driving.

"This law is designed to be practical, effective and enforceable. For example, a driver can have a snack, but the driver cannot have a bowl of cereal which he or she is eating with a spoon while driving," said Alberta Transportation spokesperson Donnae Schuhltz. "We want all Albertans to arrive home safely at the end of the day."

Government dithered on ban

A violation will not result in demerits on a driver's licence and won’t appear on a driving abstract, but that could change, the Transportation Department says.

There is already a more general statutory offence of driving without due care and attention, which carries a fine of $402 and six demerit points.

All other Canadian provinces have laws that make it illegal to talk on a hand-held cellphone while driving. New Brunswick’s is the most recent; it came into force in June and imposes a $172.50 fine and three demerit points for contraventions.

Alberta's Tory provincial government dithered for several years on whether to enact a ban. Premier Ed Stelmach and most grassroots party members opposed it, but some MLAs were staunchly in favour. In the end, the law that was passed came from a private member's bill proposed by Progressive Conservative MLA Art Johnston.