A panel of three judges with the Ontario Court of Appeal has ruled that it’s illegal to hold a cell phone or mobile communications device while driving, even for just a short period of time.

The judges reinstated the conviction of an Ontario woman who was found to have been holding a cell phone while she had been driving, and hence, had violated the province’s Highway Traffic Act.

An Ontario Court of Justice appeal judge had dismissed the conviction based on the woman’s testimony that she had only held the phone momentarily, picking it up after it had fallen on the floor.

Released on Friday, the Ontario Court of Appeal decision, written by Justice Stephen Goudge and supported by justices John Laskin and David Watt, said having a cell phone or mobile device in one’s hands for a short period of time would still constitute “holding” it, and thus would still represent a violation of the Highway Traffic Act.

'A complete prohibition...eliminates any risk of the driver being distracted by the information on the cell phone.' —Ontario Court of Appeal decision

“The interpretation of ‘holding’ offered by the appeal judge requires that there be some sustained physical holding,” Goudge wrote in the decision.

“Any holding for a shorter period of time, with the accompanying risks to road safety and driver attention, would be exempt from the prohibition. With respect, I do not think this accords with the ordinary meaning of the word.”

The judges also determined that a “complete prohibition” on holding cells phone and mobile devices while driving “best focuses a driver’s undivided attention on driving.”

“It eliminates any risk of the driver being distracted by the information on the cell phone. It removes any temptation to use the cell phone while driving. And it prevents any possibility of the cell phone physically interfering with the driver’s ability to drive.”

Distracted driving deaths increasing

This ruling comes on the heels of reports that suggest the numbers of deaths resulting from collisions involving distracted driving are going up Canada-wide.

Despite education campaigns and police blitzes, the number of fatal collisions where distraction is cited as a cause have risen by 17 per cent in Canada over the most recent five-year period, from 302 deaths to 352, according to data from Transport Canada's National Collision Database for the years 2006 to 2010.

More jurisdictions are reporting on distracted driving as a factor, but these figures don't cover all jurisdictions and may understate the problem by as much as a third, according to those who study these statistics.

Studies estimate that distracted driving accounts for 30 to 80 per cent of collisions — and cellphone use is widely accepted as an important contributor.

"Distracted driving has always a major factor in collisions, but it's been a result of electronic technology that has really brought it to the forefront," said Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Pierre Chamberland.

With files from Amber Hildebrandt