Manitoba defence lawyers worry about plan to crack down on distracted driving

A group that represents defence lawyers is questioning proposed crackdowns in some provinces on drivers who use cellphones and other hand-held devices.

People caught texting will get 24-48 hours to drive cars home before licences suspended

Manitoba and Ontario are two provinces planning to let police temporarily suspend the licences of drivers caught using hand-held electronic devices. (David Horemans/CBC)

A group that represents defence lawyers is questioning proposed crackdowns in some provinces on drivers who use cellphones and other hand-held devices.

Manitoba and Ontario are two provinces planning to let police temporarily suspend the licences of drivers caught using hand-held electronic devices.

After a procedural wrangle at the Legislature on Friday delayed its introduction, the Progressive Conservative government introduced its distracted driving legislation Monday. 

Drivers caught talking or texting on a mobile phone would have their licences suspended for three days, but it won't be a roadside suspension as it is for impaired driving. Instead, drivers will get 24 hours to get home, or even 48 hours for infractions in rural areas, before the suspension takes effect. 

"We will give you a temporary licence," Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said. "The feeling was there were 6,000 tickets issued last year, that would end up with a lot of vehicles lined up on streets."

The suspension would last three days for a first offence and seven days for a second one. There is no penalty for using hands-free equipment.

A police officer has to see the driver with device in hand to issue the suspension.

Licence suspensions would be in addition to fines and demerit points already in place.

Drivers caught talking or texting on a mobile phone would have their licences suspended for three days, but it won't be a roadside suspension as it is for impaired driving. Instead, drivers will get 24 hours to get home, or even 48 hours for infractions in rural areas, before the suspension takes effect. 2:07

Scott Newman, spokesman for the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba, says licence suspensions for drivers who have alcohol in their system are based on breathalyzer tests.

He says there's no such test for distracted drivers and police officers could mistakenly think a driver was using a hand-held device.

Newman says the proposed licence suspensions would lack judicial oversight and should be issued by a court instead of by police officers on the road.

Schuler said he's not worried about court challenges to the suspensions.

"The courts have, up until now, upheld the right of a police officer to remove somebody's licence if they deem them to be in contravention of a law and in this case distracted driving."

The head of Winnipeg's police service applauded the legislation, saying there are simply too many collisions on the road from distracted driving.

"I drive in rush hour every day and every day I see someone using their device. So this is pretty commonplace out there and we need to correct that," said Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth.

Smyth said the WPS is expanding its traffic division, so the timing for the legislation is good.

And despite issuing fewer traffic tickets this year because of changes to how they are issued, he feels the police can keep up with the new laws.

Careless driving

The legislation also affects careless driving, a separate offence. Previously, it was dealt with through a fine; now it will be a reportable offence and go on motorists' driving record with MPI. 

"That is where you get caught up having a milkshake, a hamburger and a fry while looking at a map," Schuler said. 

With files from Sean Kavanagh