Guide to Distracted Driving in Ontario

Distracted-Driving-Banner-1200x275-Jan-2019When you’re driving a vehicle in Ontario, you are legally obligated to be focused on what you are doing and on your surroundings. When you are not paying attention to where you are going and what is happening around you, there is a much greater chance of being in an accident. That’s why there are driving laws in place that penalize people who are found to be driving while distracted. If you want to make sure you avoid breaking the law and getting a ticket, fine, or being in an accident, you can use this helpful guide to distracted driving in Ontario.

What Is Distracted Driving?


Distracted driving is when someone is driving a vehicle at the same time as participating in actions and activities that take their focus away from driving. The reason why there are laws in place to punish drivers for being distracted is that studies show distracted drivers are far more likely to be in an accident and pose a safety hazard to people around them.

It is worth noting that you can be found guilty of distracted driving even when your vehicle is stopped at a red light.

In Ontario, the laws in place regarding distracted driving have evolved over time as both vehicles and technology have changed. The most recent update to Ontario’s distracted driving laws came in January 1st, 2019 which we will talk more about below.

What Are Ontario’s Distracted Driving Laws?


Ontario has pretty clear laws regarding distracted driving if you want to know how you can avoid any tickets or fines here is a list of activities that are considered ‘distractions’ to drivers in Ontario while they are behind the wheel:

  • Using a smartphone to call someone, write a message, check a maps app, or adjust their music playlist — it is illegal just to be holding a phone while driving
  • Eating food while driving
  • Reading something like a book, brochure, pamphlet, etc
  • Entering or adjusting a destination into a GPS device

It is worth noting that in Ontario you are considered to be a distracted driver and can be penalized even if you are stopped at a red light. You need to pull over and park in a safe area to perform any of the above activities to be considered safe. However, stopping on the shoulder of a 400-series highway in Ontario is prohibited and subject to a separate fine unless it is an emergency (vehicle breakdown, accident, health emergency, etc).

What are considered exceptions to distracted driving activities?

While there is a general prescription for performing activities that take your focus off the road, especially when it comes to using a technological device, there are some exceptions to the laws that are allowed:

  • Using your phone to call 911 because of an emergency
  • Calling or texting people with a ‘hands-free’ feature or integration with your vehicle’s Bluetooth system
  • Applying makeup or shaving
  • Using the display or touchscreen for a collision avoidance system, or for an instrument, gauge or system that shows you road and/or weather conditions
  • Using the ignition interlock
  • Using your vehicle’s audio screen that shows still images

In general, you can use any sort of technological device in your vehicle without being considered distracted as long as it is hands-free. If you have to hold it in your hands or use your hands to operate it, it is considered to be a distraction.

What is the new distracted driving law in Ontario starting in 2019?
As of January 1st, 2019 there was an update to Ontario’s laws regarding distracted driving. It was mostly to crack down on holding or using your phone while driving, due to the increase in smartphone use. As a result, the updated laws include more severe punishments for distracted drivers, especially for repeat offenders.

What Are the Penalties for Distracted Driving in Ontario?


There are roughly three different kinds of financial or legal penalties you can face if you are caught or convicted of driving while distracted by any of the activities mentioned above. They depend on what your license level is and how reckless or dangerous your distracted driving is considered to be. Whether or not you caused an accident, injury or death is also a significant factor.

All of the penalties mentioned below are updated according to the updates to the distracted driving laws and punishments that came in January 1st, 2019.

What are the penalties for drivers who have a full license?

For drivers that are caught driving while distracted but do not cause any accident, and who have a full license (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, or M-series license), the punishments you receive a mixture of fines, license demerit points, and license suspensions. These penalties will escalate for each subsequent conviction.

Distracted Driving Penalties First conviction Second conviction Third (or more) conviction
Fines* $615 to $1,000 3 points 3 days
Demerit points $615 to $2,000 6 points 7 days
License suspension $615 to $3,000 6 points 30 days

When it comes to the fines you may receive, what amount you are fined depends on whether you settle out of court, or fight the conviction in court and lose.

What are the penalties for drivers with learning licenses (G1, G2, M1, M2)?

For drivers who have a novice-level license that receives a conviction for distracted driving, the fines they receive are the same but they have differences in the demerit points and license suspensions.

Novice drivers receive no demerit points at all for distracted driving convictions and instead, receive much longer license suspensions:

  • 1st conviction — 30 days
  • 2nd conviction — 90 days
  • 3rd conviction — your license is removed from the Graduated License System which you can get back by taking and passing the appropriate tests from the start

What are the penalties for careless or dangerous driving?

While you can receive a ticket or fine if you are caught by driving while distracted, you can also be charged with more serious driving offences — careless driving, or dangerous driving.

Careless driving is a fine you can be charged with if you are found to have been driving recklessly or in an unsafe manner because you are distracted by the activities above. You are more likely to receive this charge if you cause an accident due to the distractions. The fines and penalties are more serious:

  • Fines — up to $2,000
  • Demerit points — 6 points
  • License suspension — up to 2 years
  • Jail time — up to 6 months

Dangerous driving is a criminal offence in Ontario and carries the most severe penalties and punishments you can receive for driving while distracted. If your dangerous driving causes an accident resulting in someone’s death, the maximum sentence you can receive is 14 years in prison.

Does a distracted driving conviction affect my insurance rates?

The other way that you can be penalized for receiving a conviction is how it affects your car insurance rates. Different insurance companies may handle a conviction slightly differently as far as how much your rates will increase, but they will all increase your rates at least somewhat.

This is because distracted driving is considered a major driving conviction and signals very dangerous behaviour for a driver. According to Ontario’s statistics since 2013, a driver using their phone is four times more likely to be in an accident. In fact, distracted driving is arguably only behind drinking and driving for dangerous behaviours that can lead to serious accidents, injuries and deaths.

In 2016 alone, the OPP reported there were at least 65 fatalities in Ontario that were caused by a car accident involving a distracted driver. The OPP has also reported that distracted driving is now the number one cause of driving-related deaths in Ontario, more than drunk driving.

Why Distracted Driving Is So Dangerous

In recent years a lot of time and resources have been put into researching and raising awareness into how and why distracted driving is so dangerous. Here are some of the facts and statistics to drive home why you should avoid all diversions when you are driving your vehicle.

From the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA):

  • If you are texting while driving on a 400-series highway, for every 5 seconds you’re looking at your phone to type you are effectively driving the distance of a football field blindfolded
  • There are now around 4 million car accidents in North America every year where distracted drivers was a factor
  • 26% of all car crashes involve the driver using a phone, even a hands-free phone

From the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC):

  • A driver that texts is 23 times more likely to be in an accident
  • Distracted drivers miss up to 50% of their surroundings and what is happening around them
  • A Virginia Tech study in 2007 showed that almost 80% of collisions involved the driver being distracted up to three seconds before the accident

While cell phone-related distractions have been the focal point for all the recent attention on distracted driving, it is worth noting that other forms of distractions can be more common even if they are less dangerous. Here is a list of activities that Canadian drivers who were polled admitted to participating in while driving:

  • Eating and drinking — 87%
  • Looking at and talking to a passenger — 60%
  • Reaching for something in the backseat — 51%
  • Putting on or taking off clothing — 29%
  • Applying makeup or adjusting hair — 13%

Any of these activities that take your focus away from driving can increase the chances you are in an accident. The worst distractions are the ones that cause you to take your eyes off of the road and your surroundings, such as putting on or taking off clothing.

Did You Know? It's impossible to know for sure if distracted driving leads to an accident, so it is widely assumed that the number of accidents, injuries and deaths in which distracted driving was a factor is much higher than is reported in current studies.

How Can I Avoid Distracted Driving?

If you want to figure out ways to avoid driving while distracted, there are a number of tips that are highly recommended by the Government of Ontario and other safe driving experts. Part of the reason why distracted driving activities have become so commonplace is due to the perception of necessity — you feel you have to look at your phone to check your GPS route, or text your friend, or adjust the volume on the music app.

That’s why the best way to avoid distracted driving is with planning and preparation:

  • Turn off your phone, turn it onto silent, or stow it somewhere out of reach
  • Have a passenger check the GPS or maps app for directions, adjust music volume, and so on
  • Know what the route to your destination is ahead of time
  • Get a GPS device or use an app that you can set before starting your car, enter your destination, and read out the instructions so you don’t have to look at it
  • Keep your vehicle clean and put away anything that might shift around and distract you
  • Get a chord or sync your phone to your car’s sound system to play your music so you can more easily reach the dials in your car’s console
  • Eat your food at home or at a restaurant before driving
  • Get up earlier in the morning to do your makeup, fix your hair, or put on clothing

It is always best to do everything you can to maintain focusing on driving the only activity you participate in until you reach your destination.

Useful Tip! You can buy a number of storage accessories such as hooks, bins, and pockets that hang from a headrest or are secured to something in your car to prevent things from sliding or bouncing around. You can also buy special covers that seal the gap between your seat and the console, that way nothing can fall down into the gap and tempt you into rummaging for it while you're driving.

Summary

Distracted driving is becoming an increasingly important issue in Ontario, to the point that the government has recently increased the legal punishments for people who are caught driving while distracted. This is because of new statistics that show just how dangerous distracted driving is, and how many car accidents, injuries and deaths involve or are directly caused by distracted drivers. If you want to avoid the fines, demerit points and license suspensions, the best way to do is to plan your trips and your time and put away your phone and objects where you can’t reach them.

You might also be interested in these guides:


What To Do if You Are In an Accident
Guide to Car Insurance in Ontario
Guide to Ontario Driver’s Licenses & Driving in Ontario
How to Renew or Replace Your Driver’s License in Ontario