Ottawa

Distracted driving law could target minorities, advocates warn

Civil liberty advocates warn that Ontario's new distracted driving law could disproportionately affect racialized communities.

Tougher penalties for texting and driving came into effect Jan. 1

An Ottawa police officer carries out a roadside stop in December 2018, less than one month before tougher distracted driving rules came into effect. Now, civil rights advocates are warning that minorities could be disproportionately targeted. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Civil liberty advocates warn that Ontario's new distracted driving law could disproportionately affect racial minorities.

Tougher penalties for texting and driving in the province came into effect Jan. 1. Drivers caught talking, texting, dialing or emailing on handheld devices can now be fined up to $1,000.

But there are concerns that the law could allow police to target specific groups over others.

"Is this another reason to pull over black folk that are driving and minding their own business?" asked Ottawa community advocate Richard Sharpe.

"I think we'll have to really be vigilant and safeguard against this law being used to disproportionately target minority groups."

Community advocate Richard Sharpe worries if police rely too much on their own discretion, visible minorities could be hit harder by tougher penalties for distracted driving. 0:27

Studies suggest certain minorities targeted

U.S. legislation intended to reduce texting while driving has received pushback in states like Massachusetts and Iowa, where studies have shown black and Hispanic motorists are far more likely to be pulled over by police.

In Canada, a 2016 report by York University researchers revealed that Middle Eastern and black drivers — particularly young men — were stopped by Ottawa Police Service officers more than any other drivers.

In an interview with CBC News about the new law, Sgt. Mark Gatien said Ottawa police officers will use "subjective" judgment to stop drivers suspected of being distracted.

The executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said that's problematic.

"There's a type of police officer in Ontario who believes in what they consider good old-fashioned policing involving a hunch. And if they don't like the look of somebody, they pull them over," said Michael Bryant.

"[Police could say] 'I thought I saw you on your cellphone, or I thought I saw you looking down as if you were on a cellphone or texting somebody. And that's why I pulled you over.'"

Toronto-based human rights lawyer Anthony Morgan agrees.

"[Police] discretion too often ends up being abused," he said. "That could lead to racial profiling."

Michael Bryant, the head of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says it's problematic that Ottawa police officers use 'subjective' judgment to stop drivers suspected of being distracted. (CBC)

Tracking traffic stops not enough

Ottawa police officers record the race of drivers at traffic stops, but both Bryant and Morgan said that isn't enough.

"There needs to be meaningful, robust training that is as significant as their use-of-force training," said Morgan.

Bryant also suggests cities and police agencies set aside money in their budgets to specifically address systemic bias. 

"[The] people who are accountable for what the police do ... they have to show us that they are taking this seriously."

CBC made several requests for comment from Ottawa police. No one was made available to speak on this matter.