Want to drive or pedal in Quebec? Put your phones down and take your earbuds out

Quebec's upgraded distracted driving laws go into effect Saturday, impacting not just motorists but cyclists and mobility scooter users as well.

New rules ban cyclists from using earbuds, while motorists face heftier penalties for portable electronic use

Montrealer Lizzy Bay takes a break from pedalling through the Old Port Tuesday to tell CBC that she supports Quebec's new regulations that ban cyclists from wearing earbuds in one or both ears. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

Quebec's upgraded distracted driving laws go into effect Saturday, impacting not just motorists but cyclists and mobility scooter users as well.

Motorists will face substantially heftier fines if they are caught with a portable electronic device — be it a cell phone, tablet or music player — in their hands. Subsequent offences within a two-year period will lead to an immediate licence suspension.

Meanwhile, cyclists will risk fines of $80 to $100 if they are caught handling their electronic device or wearing headphones. Mobility scooter users face fines of $30 to $60 for the same offences.

Where motorists are permitted one earbud, cyclists and mobility scooter users are prohibited from wearing any.

That ban is something Montreal resident Rhea Grutter can get behind.

Grutter told CBC that she was injured two years ago when an earbud-wearing cyclist collided with her on the De Maisonneuve Boulevard bike path.

She notified police but without any laws banning headphones, she said, "The cops came but did nothing."

After she was injured in a collision with an earbud-wearing cyclist two years ago, Montrealer Rhea Grutter says she supports Quebec's new ban on earphone and portable electronic use while biking. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

After that experience, Grutter supports the new regulations.

So does Montrealer Lizzy Bay.

"It's good that they're putting out these fines, even though it sucks to get them," she said, taking a break from a cycling trip through the Old Port. "You'll learn fast if you're charged 100 bucks each time."

Motorists to be fined up to $600

Distracted driving accounts for about 34 per cent of deaths on the road, making it Quebec's leading cause of fatal collisions in 2017, according to Mario Vaillancourt, spokesperson for the SAAQ, the province's automobile insurance board.

"We hope these measures will decrease the number of deaths on the road," he said.

Motorists caught with a portable electronic device in their hands, whether they are using it or not, will now face fines of $300 to $600. This is up from a maximum of $100. Demerit points have increased from four to five.

If a driver is caught for a second time within two years, officers will immediately suspend their licence on the spot for three days.

Subsequent offences within a two-year period can lead to seven- to 30-day suspensions that are also immediately enforced.

Quebec drivers accumulate demerit points, and demerits stay on record for two years, with each infraction leading to increased licence renewal rates during that time.

If, for example, a driver with only four demerit points is caught with a mobile device in their hand, Vaillancourt said, "They will lose their licence for at least three months."

Cyclists and mobility scooter users no longer face the risk of demerit points for road infractions, he said.

CAA-Québec Foundation calls for more enforcement

Provincial police issued 12,918 infractions for cellphone use behind the wheel in 2016 and, in 2017, Montreal police issued 15,409 infractions, but road safety advocates would like to see even more enforcement.

"Some people, I'm sorry, but they don't understand with their brain, they understand with their pocket," said Marco Harrison, director of the CAA-Québec Foundation which is focused on improving road safety across the province.

"If you go and reach into their pocket and take money out of it, then they will understand."

The CAA-Québec Foundation works to raise awareness among drivers to the dangers of distracted driving through a variety of programs and its website, he said, but increased enforcement will drive home the message.

The foundation met Ministry of Transport officials in the lead-up to Quebec's decision to amend the Highway Safety Code, and Harrison said CAA-Québec made it clear that more enforcement is needed in tandem with increased efforts to educate the population about the dangers of distracted driving.

"Better enforcement has to be part of the solution," he said.

Exceptions to the rule

There are a few exceptions to the prohibition on using portable electronics while on the road.

Devices that are securely mounted on a dashboard or handlebars in a way that doesn't obstruct views or hinder vehicle operation can be used as long as that usage is in relation to the vehicle's operation. This also applies to display screens that are integrated into a vehicle.

Holding any kind of portable electronic device can land you a fine of up to $600 and five demerit points under Quebec's newly amended distracted driving law which goes into effect June 30. (David Horemans/CBC)

That means it is OK, for example, to adjust GPS co-ordinates, but it is not permissible to change playlists, transmit messages or check the local news.

Set it up before you go

Even if occasionally using a device that is securely attached to your dash or handlebars is allowed in some cases, Harrison said it is still dangerous.

That is why CAA-Quebec recommends setting everything up before hitting the road.

"You have to understand, care and program everything you can before you get on your way," he said.

With files from Elysha Enos