Alberta's distracted driving demerits praised as 'a start' by victim

Transportation Minister Brian Mason called the Alberta government's crackdown on distracted drivers "a top priority," as a crash victim hailed tougher penalties of three demerit points as "a start."

Transportation Minister Brian Mason says curbing the bad habits of Alberta drivers a 'top priority'

Alberta Transportation Minister Brian Mason announced tougher penalties for distracted drivers on Thursday, saying the message is not getting through. Starting Jan. 1, any drivers caught not paying attention will get a $287 fine and three demerit points. (CBC)

​Alberta motorists caught driving while distracted will soon chalk up black marks on their licence as well as having to pay a fine.

Starting Jan. 1, any drivers caught not paying attention will get a $287 fine and three demerit points.

Transportation Minister Brian Mason says the message is not getting through and tougher sanctions are needed. He said it's "a top priority."

"People continue to drive while distracted on our roads and highways," he said in a news conference in Edmonton Thursday. "This is unacceptable and puts everyone on the road at risk."

Mason said police forces across the province have said that while distracted driving went down after fines were introduced in 2011, "they have seen drivers slip back to their old behaviours."

Distracted driver's victim calls move 'a start'

"Research shows that demerits are a more effective deterrent when paired with enforcement and education initiatives," Mason said.

The move puts Alberta in line with other provinces, that already have demerit points for distracted driving, Mason said.

Mason was joined by crash victim Renaye Wade as the province outlined the new rules.

Renaye Wade was left in a coma for roughly a month after her car was hit by a distracted driver. (CBC)

In 2013, Wade was in a stalled car that was struck by a distracted driver and pushed into the path of a semi-trailer. She spent 34 days in a coma. She suffered broken bones and a devastating brain injury, and had to learn to walk, talk and eat again.

She called the tougher penalties "a start for Alberta."

27,417 convictions in past year

Government statistics show there have been nearly 80,000 convictions since Alberta began levying fines on distracted drivers until this March. The vast majority went to drivers who were operating vehicles while looking or operating hand-held devices.

On average, about two-thirds of those convicted are men. Young male drivers between 22 and 34 had the highest conviction rates.

I can predict that there will probably be a lot more people challenging that ticket when it comes to going to court.- Ernie Auch, who owns a paralegal firm that specializes in traffic tickets

There were 27,417 convictions for distracted driving in the 2014-15 year. That was a five per cent increase compared with the previous year.

Distracted driving includes using hand-held phones, texting, emailing, reading, writing, grooming or typing in GPS co-ordinates while behind the wheel.

Distracted driving does not include smoking, talking on a hands-free phone, chatting with passengers, drinking a coffee, eating a snack or listening to music that has already been pre-loaded.

Paralegal firm predicts more ticket challenges

Deputy RCMP Commissioner Marianne Ryan says "demerits are the key" to curbing those bad habits as people will take it more seriously.

She says RCMP have pulled over drivers who are still texting even when officers approach their vehicles, and the ticket just gets crumpled and thrown on the floor.

Ryan says if drivers rack up 15 demerits, they will lose their licence, which will impact their livelihood. 

Deputy RCMP Commissioner Marianne Ryan says she is pleased that officers can now issue tickets that come with demerits. (CBC)

Ernie Auch owns a paralegal firm that specializes in traffic tickets.

"Anything that has implications on their driving record and the possibility of them losing their right to drive for a period of time, they will take that seriously," he said.

"I can predict that there will probably be a lot more people challenging that ticket when it comes to going to court."

He expects the new regulation to spike his number of clients. 

Albertans weigh in

CBC's Alberta@Noon asked residents around the province to weigh in. Here is a sample of that feedback:

"I'm for this, but the scope has to be clear. Example screaming kids distracting the driver, you drink coffee no problem, etc." — David Yee

"I think that this is long over due, but I agree that enforcement seems to be an issue. How many times have we seen drivers speeding down Highway 2 while texting on their phones? Frightening. I would hope that the threat of demerit points being levied, and thereby higher insurance rates, may make some drivers think twice. However, the vehicle should need to be turned off and in park before this could be considered safe." — Maxine Farr-Jones

"There's lots of irony, if not hypocrisy about this. There are many legal distractions one encounters while driving everyday. How about the large promotional banners at the side of the road. The City of Edmonton uses them all the time? On one side of the banner the letters are readable on the other side they are not. By the time you figure out that you're looking at backwards writing you've run into the car in front of you." — John McLay

With files from CBC News


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