Distracted Driving Laws & Penalties in Canada Per Province

March 20, 2020

Distracted driving can be just as hazardous as driving under the influence. In this article, we'll show you how the laws and penalties vary province-to-province in 2020 and offer some tips on how to avoid distracted driving.

Since 1964, The Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) has been collecting data on driving statistics in Canada, and in recent years has been reporting on one of the biggest dangers on the road: distracted driving.

According to IBC, distracted driving can be just as hazardous as driving under the influence. You might not think that a few seconds of your eyes being off the road could land you in a major collision. But those four to six seconds that your eyes are distracted from driving is like driving across the length of a football field at 90 km/h with your eyes closed.

Virginia Tech Transportation Institute states that approximately 80% of collisions involved some sort of distracted driving up to three seconds prior to the event. Roughly 3 out of 4 Canadians admit to driving while distracted.

What is distracted driving?

Distracted driving occurs when a driver’s attention wanders away from the act of driving. Every province has its own set of rules but there are national bans in place for using cellphones or hand-held devices while driving and, if a person is caught breaking this law, it could result in penalties.

According to the National Safety Council, a distracted driver, even if looking away from the road for just a few seconds, could fail to see 50% of their driving environment. Even if drivers are looking while distracted, it’s possible they might not be seeing what’s happening. There are an increasing number of Canadians who are engaging on social media while driving, which is becoming a serious road safety issue today.

The Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators has developed the definition of distracted driving as: “The diversion of attention from driving, as a result of the driver focusing on a non-driving object, activity, event, or person.”

Distracted driving reduces a driver’s awareness, decision-making, and performance which can lead to driver-error and accidents. As distracted driving becomes more prominent, it’s in your best interest to avoid factors causing distraction behind the wheel, while at the same time, being mindful of drivers around you who may or may not be distracted themselves.

CBC Report: Distracted driving as deadly as impaired driving

Does eating while driving count as distracted driving?

While eating is not a specific part of most province's distracted driving law, some regions of Canada—such as Ontario—have enacted stricter penalties for snacking while in the driver's seat. In most provinces, instances of eating while driving will be judged on a case-by-case basis, which means you could be ticketed up to $1,000 if it's deemed that the act of eating behind the wheel impaired your driving.

Distracted driving & pets

While not strictly falling under distracted driving laws, driving with a dog on your lap breaches other laws in most provinces. For example, in British Columbia, you (and your pet) would be in violation of the "Drive while control obstructed & "Drive while view obstructed" sections of the Motor Vehicle Act, which can cost you over $100 in fines and three demerit points. And in Ontario, you're committing Insecure Load and Careless Driving offences of the Highway Traffic Act.

Fortunately, there are pet harnesses, seats, and crates to keep your pet safe and secure while you're in the driver's seat.  

Can I be fined if a passenger is using their smartphone?

Passengers are permitted to use their smartphones for talking, texting, reading, navigating, watching videos, and more while you drive. However, if the driver is deemed to be distracted by the passenger in any way—including talking to the passenger—authorities can issue a warning or a fine.

man engaging in distracted driving offences

Distracted driving laws and penalties by province:

Before learning how you can avoid distracted driving penalties in Canada, it’s important to understand the laws in your province:

Distracted driving penalties in Ontario

In Ontario, deaths from distracted driving have doubled since 2000, and it is illegal to use a cellphone or any other hand-held wireless communication device to text or dial and view display screens or program a GPS system, even if stopped at a red light.

Fines for distracted driving in Ontario can be anywhere from $615 to $3,000 with three to six demerit points.

If you're a first-time offender and you dispute the ticket, a $615 ticket increases to $1,000 if you lose.

A second-time offender will receive a $615 ticket that increases to $2,000 if they dispute it and lose. They can also expect six demerit points and license suspension for seven days. 

For third-time offenders, a $615 ticket goes up to $3,000 if they take it to court and lose. They’ll also receive six demerit points and license suspension for 30 days. 

Novice drivers will face longer suspensions and possible revocation. 

A driver involved in an accident due to eating, drinking, smoking, reaching for objects and reading can be charged with careless or dangerous driving.

Blatantly careless driving that endangers the lives of others can lead to a 2-year license suspension and even jail time.

It is legal to use a hands-free wireless device with an earpiece or Bluetooth, and GPS display screens can be used while driving if they’re built into the vehicle’s dashboard.

Distracted driving penalties in British Columbia

Approximately one-quarter of vehicle collisions in British Columbia are attributed to distracted driving, and research shows that telephone conversations are much more distracting than in-vehicle conversations.

Any activity that prevents a driver’s ability to focus on the road – distractions from both inside and outside of the vehicle – can impact a driver’s full observation of the road, and the Motor Vehicle Act forbids drivers from using smartphones and other electronic devices while driving. However, they can use the hands-free mode on their phone so long as it is mounted on a holder or dock

'N' drivers are not permitted to "use" an electronic device while driving—even in hands-free mode. "Use" refers to holding the device, operating its functions, communicating through the device, or watching the screen.

Drivers caught emailing, texting, or using an electronic device while driving face a first-time offence fine of $368 and four points ($210) in their ICBC penalty point premium. That's a total of $578 in fines.

Recently, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that driving with your smartphone on your lap does count as distracted driving. Even if your smartphone is mounted, you can get a ticket just for touching the device to change the song!

The B.C. Supreme Court has also ruled that wearing both earbuds connected to a smartphone counts as a distracted driving offence—even if the phone is powered off. According to the B.C. Motor Vehicle Act, drivers are permitted to wear a single earbud when driving.

Serious or repeated convictions for distracted driving will result in increased premiums after the first conviction. For more information, see this updated table on ICBC's Driver Risk Premium amounts.

Distracted driving penalties in Alberta

Alberta’s Distracted Driving Law restricts drivers from using hand-held cellphones, texting and emailing, using camera and portable audio players, entering information on GPS units, reading behind the wheel, and personal grooming.

Even if a person’s driving is perfect, if caught breaking the Distracted Driving Law, they could be penalized and charged with a $287 fine and three demerit points.

Convicted Albertans may find it difficult to get full insurance coverage at reasonable rates. Insurance can go up by as much as 25% after a distracted driving conviction. 

Activities that are not restricted under the law include using a cellphone in a hands-free mode, using one earphone, drinking beverages, eating, smoking, talking with passengers, calling an emergency service, and using hand-held radios in commercial vehicles.

Distracted driving penalties in Saskatchewan

In Saskatchewan, distracted driving is one of the top three factors involved with fatal vehicle collisions. Under Saskatchewan’s Traffic Safety Act, it is illegal to "hold, view, use or manipulate electronic communications equipment (cell phone) while driving a motor vehicle on a highway."

Other offences include eating, using a GPS system, reading maps, and personal grooming. Even talking to other passengers constitutes an offence and could land you a fine if a collision occurs.

Before 2020, a distracted driving ticket would set you back $280 and four demerit points on SGI's Safe Driver Recognition (SDR) scale.

As of February 2020, offending drivers face a $580 fine and four demerit points. Additional offences will lead to vehicle seizures and even larger fines of up to $1,400 for a second offence and $2,100 for a third offence. On top of that, repeat offenders will be hit with towing and impound fees costing hundreds of dollars. 

Experienced drivers can use hands-free devices but only if they can be activated with voice command or one-touch activation.

Distracted driving penalties in Manitoba

According to Manitoba’s Highway Traffic Act and the Drivers and Vehicles Act, drivers caught using a cellphone or another hand-operated electronic device while behind the wheel are subject to a three-day license suspension and a seven-day suspension for a subsequent occurrence within 10 years.

Drivers also face a $672 fine and five demerit points. In Manitoba, distracted driving was the lead cause of collisions in 2017, and continues to pose a risk for driving as it can increase the risk of collision by nearly four times.

Distracted driving penalties in Quebec

As distracted driving minimizes a driver’s capacity to analyze a situation on the road and react, laws in Quebec prohibit any driver to use a cellphone or any other portable device behind the wheel.

However, drivers are allowed to use an earphone in one ear and driving while using hands-free devices, although not particularly a safer option, is tolerated. If caught driving distracted, drivers can face a $300 to $600 fine and five demerit points.

Distracted driving penalties in New Brunswick

It is illegal to make and take telephone calls behind the wheel of a vehicle in New Brunswick unless the telephone is hands-free or single-touch, or if it is an emergency.

By law, it is also illegal to text and program a GPS system while driving. If a display screen in your vehicle is built into the dashboard, like an MP3 or GPS, is it legal to use. However, the use of all electronic devices, unless it’s a two-way radio for operating a commercial vehicle, are illegal and could result in a $172.50 fine and three demerit points.

Distracted driving penalties in Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia has implemented fines for drivers who text and use hand-held devices behind the wheel. In 2015, the province increased the fines for distracted driving to $233.95 for first offence and $578.95 for a third offence with the addition of four demerit points on conviction.

Distracted driving penalties in Prince Edward Island

In Prince Edward Island, it is illegal to text, dial, email or search using a hand-held communication device while behind the wheel.

Drivers can use hands-free technology activated by a single touch or pull over in a safe area off the road to talk or text. However, cellphones, GPS systems, and laptops are illegal to use and if caught will result in a fine from $572 to $1275 and four demerit points.

Distracted driving penalties in Newfoundland and Labrador

In June 2018, Newfoundland and Labrador implemented a new offence under the province’s Highway Traffic Act for driving without due care.

Drivers caught driving while distracted, increasing the risk of an accident or bodily harm to others on the road, will be fined $100 to $400 and four demerit points.

Distracted driving penalties in the Territories

The Northwest Territories have placed a ban on using hand-held electronic devices since 2012. Any device used to transmit and receive messages, play audio or video record are restricted behind the wheel. Drivers who don’t comply with this law and are caught could face charges ranging from $322 to $644 and three demerit points.

How to avoid distracted driving penalties:

Ignoring a notification while you’re behind the wheel might not seem like a life-or-death situation. However, it only takes a couple seconds for something to go seriously wrong. Here are a few tips that could help you avoid distracted driving penalties and reduce your risk of collisions and bodily harm.

  1. Switch your phone to silent mode

Turning off your phone’s notifications seems like an obvious, no-brainer suggestion, but does anyone? When we receive a notification, our brains respond with a surge of dopamine from hearing a ring, buzz or ding coming out of our cell phones or other electronic devices.

Without even thinking, some people are inclined to check our technology to see who is trying to reach us and why, and often this occurs while on the road. If you’re getting in the car to drive, either turn your phone off or put it in silent mode so you don’t hear notifications or are tempted to engage with your electronic device. Doing so could save a life.

  1. Download apps for call blocking

If you’re often on the road for long periods of time, downloading an app on your smartphone that lets you block incoming texts and calls can help you avoid distractions from mobile devices altogether. There are a ton of applications available that block calls and messages and these apps can send out automated messages to let the people who are trying to reach you know that you’re currently driving and unavailable to talk.

Apple’s Do Not Disturb While Driving feature lets your phone detect when you might be driving and automatically blocks notifications. If you own an Apple smartphone, ensure this feature is turned on via your settings tab to maintain full focus while driving.

  1. Pull over

Cellphones and electronics aren’t the only forms of distracted driving. Distractions inside of the vehicle like talking with other passengers, dealing with children and animals, programming a GPS system, eating and reaching for a fallen object are just a couple examples of driver distractions.

If you’re behind the wheel and find yourself caught in an overwhelming situation, don’t hesitate to pull off of the road into a safe area to deal with distractions. You’ll not only be doing yourself and your passengers a favour, but you’ll be reducing the risk of an accident for others on the road.

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