Manitoba

Man 'paying a lifetime for somebody being distracted for 5 seconds' welcomes new distracted driving penalties

Distracted drivers who are caught behind the wheel on a phone or other electronic device in Manitoba will be given a $672 fine, have their licence suspended and get five demerits starting Wednesday.

Manitoba defence lawyers association raises concerns, including fears smartwatch users could be fined

René Bouchard is happy Manitoba is introducing tougher penalties for distracted driving. He's still living with pain from a car crash 13 years ago that resulted in a driver pleading guilty to imprudent driving. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Thirteen years after being hit on his motorcycle in a crash that could have killed him — and which he says was caused by a distracted driver — René Bouchard is still living in pain.

He hopes new tougher penalties introduced by the Manitoba government will deter distracted driving.

The 35-year-old has constant back pain and can't use his wrists the same way he could before the crash. When he runs, he has a limp.

"If you saw me running, you'd be, like, 'That guy got hit by a car,'" he said Tuesday during a drive with CBC News.

Bouchard was hit in April 2005 in Steinbach, Man. The driver of the car had already been convicted of careless driving shortly before hitting Bouchard.

René Bouchard had a dislocated left hip, crushed cartilage in his left pelvis and two broken ribs after the crash, along with other injuries. (Submitted by René Bouchard)

"I remember kind of realizing that I was up against the curb and I looked over to my left and I saw that my boot, my steel-toe boot, was next to me, thinking to myself, like, 'Holy cow, I got hit so hard that my boot flew off.'

René Bouchard had to learn to walk again after the crash. (Submitted by René Bouchard)

"But then I realized that my boot was still on me — it was my leg that was dislocated."

Bouchard spent three months in a back brace. He had to use a wheelchair and eventually learn how to walk again.

He said the driver who hit him was distracted.

While dangerous driving charges were stayed, the driver pleaded guilty to imprudent driving in connection with the crash, according to a story in the Steinbach Carillon from the time.

Bouchard said he's bothered by seeing distracted drivers over the years on the roads, but he's hoping Manitoba's new penalties will curb the behaviour.

Starting Thursday, drivers who are caught on their phones or other hand-operated devices while driving will be given a $672 fine, five demerits and a three-day roadside suspension if it's their first offence.

If they're caught again within 10 years of the first offence, they'll be given a seven-day suspension. They'll also have to pay a $50 fee to have their licence reinstated.

The fine before Thursday for the offence was $203 and five demerits.

"When you impact somebody else's life when you're distracted, that impact can last a lifetime," Bouchard said.

"The person who hit me, I'm sure he's gone on with life and has paid his fines, did his dues and all that. But me, 13 years later I'm still paying. I'm paying a lifetime for somebody being distracted for five seconds," Bouchard said.

Loss of presumption of innocence a problem: lawyer 

The Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba, though, is raising alarm bells about the new law.

"The biggest concern is that people are going to be losing their licences upon charge," said association spokesperson Scott Newman.

"There may be situations where the police make mistakes, where the person has a viable defence and they're going to be punished before there's a finding of guilt in a court of law. That's a real problem for us."

Scott Newman said it'll be interesting to see if the new law is challenged by drivers in court. He said the government can still be tough on distracted drivers without taking away the presumption of innocence. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Newman said a key issue is that the presumption of innocence is disregarded with automatic suspensions. He said everyone should be able to have their day in court before a punishment is given and pointed out that in Ontario, drivers are given the same driving suspension only after being convicted.

"You can be tough without losing fairness and losing charter rights."

Newman said drivers may not realize how far the law goes and said drivers in Winnipeg are already being fined not for being on their phone, but for wearing a smartwatch.

Drivers ticketed for wearing smartwatches

"You're going to get a ticket for that and if you're wearing your smartwatch while you're driving, you're going to get your licence pulled. And not a lot of people are going to know that and people are going to be surprised," he said.

He pointed to a case in Ontario where a judge in May found a driver guilty of distracted driving for looking at her Apple Watch. The driver said she was checking the time.

Newman's advice is to leave your smartwatch at home if you're getting behind the wheel, but he questioned how far the law could be interpreted in the internet age.

"Are we going to get to the point where your Fitbit is considered connected to the internet such that that's distracted driving, because the law … talks about communication devices?"

Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said 30 people were killed due to distracted driving in 2017 while another 184 were seriously injured due to cellphone use or other distractions behind the wheel.

Stiffer penalties for distracted driving in Manitoba

4 years ago
Duration 2:19
Thirteen years after being hit on his motorcycle in a crash that could have killed him — and which he says was caused by a distracted driver — René Bouchard is still living in pain.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

​Austin Grabish is a reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg. Since joining CBC in 2016, he's covered several major stories. Some of his career highlights have been documenting the plight of asylum seekers leaving America in the dead of winter for Canada and the 2019 manhunt for two teenage murder suspects. In 2021, he won an RTDNA Canada award for his investigative reporting on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which triggered change. Have a story idea? Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca

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