Distracted driving nets $1M in fines so far this year, but little change in behaviour

Though Ottawa police have handed out more than $1 million in fines to drivers using handheld devices this year, the number of offences continues to climb.
'Distracted driving charges, unfortunately, are not hard to find,' says Ottawa police Sgt. Mark Gatien.

Ottawa police have issued more than $1 million in fines for distracted driving with more than two months still to go in the year, but they say it doesn't seem to have stopped people from picking up their phones or engaging in similar illegal behaviour.

"We're at a loss as to what else we can do, except the enforcement that we've been doing," said Sgt. Mark Gatien of the traffic enforcement unit.

"Every day we go out to do a blitz, they're rampant. They're there right in front of us. If they're paying attention, they see us standing on the side of the road, but they're so focused on what they're doing, they don't see what's going on," he said.

Penalties got stiffer last year

In 2015, Ontario increased the penalties for distracted driving:

  • A fine of $490, if settled out of court (includes a victim surcharge and the court fee).
  • A fine of up to $1,000 if a summons is received or if you fight the ticket in court and lose.

Drivers holding an A, B, C, D, E, F and/or G licence will also get three demerit points.

In Ottawa, one traffic officer alone has handed out $302,330 worth of citations for cell phone use.

"He is in court because people think that they have a chance of going to court and having the demerit points erased," said Gatien. "But the court system cannot touch the demerit points — they are mandated by the Ministry of Transportation."

Gatien, a 32-year veteran of the police service, was at a loss to suggest how to reduce the number of people killed in distracted driving crashes.

"They need to go to what we see. We see the carnage. I've been into an accident where the cell phone is embedded in the windshield, jammed in between. So there's no doubt they had it up high when they hit."

New cameras allow police to focus on drivers

Police officers are more able to focus on driver behaviour with the help of a computer system equipped on some cars that uses three cameras to scan and read up to 5,000 licence plates an hour.

The system automatically compares the licence plates of passing cars against a database of expired, suspended and otherwise flagged vehicle registrations. The work used to require manually typing in the plate information, and much more attention from the officer.

At a location near Hazeldean Road and Terry Fox Boulevard, Sgt. Rob Cairns said the sophisticated plate-reading system means his eyes can stay on the drivers instead of on the laptop in his patrol car.

"In these circumstances we can park up and the machine can merrily ping away," said Cairns.

No warnings

Gatien said his officers have instructions to not simply give warnings.

"You find somebody on the phone, whatever your excuse may or may not be, you'll be getting an offence notice for what you've done," said Gatien.

The money goes into general revenue for the City of Ottawa, though the officer said it was common for drivers to take a cynical attitude toward the frequent distracted driving blitzes.

We always hear, "Why can't you go catch criminals?"- Ottawa police Sgt. Mark Gatien

"We always hear, 'Why can't you go catch criminals?' Well, I'm the traffic branch, and we have a criminal investigation section that goes after major crimes, but hey if you want to stop and tell me where there's a criminal offence taking place right now I'll stop what I'm doing and I'll go straight to that offence. You just let me know." 

Provincial data on collisions from 2013 show one person is injured in a distracted-driving collision every half hour.