British Columbia·CBC Explains

What you need to know about distracted driving following the B.C. Supreme Court ruling

A B.C. Supreme Court ruling may have helped to clarify a major part of the province’s distracted driving laws, but many questions still remain.

Ruling clarifies some aspects of the law, not others

A B.C. judge ruled that the presence of a cellphone within sight of a driver is not enough to secure a conviction for distracted driving. (CBC)

Having your cellphone loose in your car no longer counts as distracted driving, according to a recent ruling by a B.C. Supreme Court judge.

The ruling has helped to clarify a major part of the province's distracted driving laws, but many questions still remain.

Here is what you need to know going forward:

What are the distracted driving laws in B.C.?

Part 3.1 of the Motor Vehicle Act forbids drivers from using mobile phones and other electronic devices while driving or operating a motor vehicle.

Drivers can use their cellphone in their car if they are legally parked off the road. They can also use it if they are using the "hands-free" function, but the device must be mounted to the vehicle using a cellphone holder or other mechanism.

What is the punishment for distracted driving?

The fine for a distracted driving ticket is $368, along with four driver penalty points that will be applied to the driver's record.

First-time violators must pay an extra Insurance Corporation of B.C. penalty fee of $210 for a total of $578.

What did the B.C. Supreme Court ruling say?

The case was brought forward by a B.C. driver whose cellphone was wedged in the passenger seat. He was given a ticket for distracted driving, even though he was not touching it.

A B.C. Supreme Court judge determined that simply having a cellphone within sight of a driver does not meet the threshold necessary for a conviction.

What changes with the ruling?

Kyla Lee, the Vancouver-based lawyer who argued the case, said police can no longer issue tickets to drivers who have their mobile phone loose in their vehicle but are not touching it.

In other words, it is OK for drivers to place their phones in a cupholder or on the passenger seat while driving.

Lee said people who do get a ticket for simply having their cellphone in sight should dispute it because they now have a valid defence.

A spokesperson with the B.C. RCMP's traffic services told CBC News that distracted driving tickets will be handed out only to drivers who are "using" their phone — which no longer includes only having it visible in the car.

Sgt. Jason Robillard of the Vancouver Police Department said the department is reviewing the ruling and plans to use the guidelines in the future.

A phone secured within a vehicle can be used to map a route, but only if it's mounted in the right spot and doesn't distract the driver's eye from the road. (David Horemans/CBC)

Does this mean I can use my phone for directions when it's in the cup holder?

No. Lee said drivers are only allowed to use their phone as a global positioning system, if it is mounted to the vehicle using a cellphone holder and if the device is transmitting any audible commands through the vehicle's speakers or a Bluetooth audio device.

The same applies to using a cellphone for a phone call, to send a voice-directed text message, and for playing music. If you're using it, it must be both hands-free and in a mount of some sort.

What can people do who have been given tickets in the past?

Lee says people who have received a ticket for having a cellphone in sight but not using it can challenge their tickets in traffic court if they received it in the last 30 days.

If they've been convicted within the last 30 days, they can file an appeal in B.C. Supreme Court.

If they were convicted more than 30 days ago, they can ask the court for an extension of the time limit for filing an appeal.

Does this make the law clear?

Lee said a number of aspects of the law require further clarification, including an offence for looking at the screen of a phone while driving. 

Conventional advice is to have it mounted in the right spot in a way that doesn't distract the driver's eye from the road.

"It's not entirely clear in the law whether you can look at the screen while it's mounted ... or if it's a complete ban altogether," said Lee.

The same goes for using your phone in an emergency, for which there is an exemption in the law. Lee said there is no clear definition of what constitutes an emergency situation.

"That's something the courts are going to have to clarify," said Lee.

with files from Clare Hennig and Yvette Brend

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