Advocates call for stiffer distracted driving penalties

Changes could be coming to Yukon’s distracted driving laws after the territorial government completes a review of current legislation.

Changes could be coming to Yukon’s distracted driving laws after the territorial government completes a review of current legislation. The Liberal government agreed to do the review — and to compare Yukon’s laws to other jurisdictions — after a motion put forward in the legislative assembly by Takhini-Kopper King MLA Kate White.

“There have been a lot more accidents lately that have involved distracted driving,” said White. “National statistics say distracted driving is the number one killer right now. Even more so than drinking and driving.”

White would like to see the fines increased. “The conversation that has to happen right now is: is $250 really enough of a deterrent?” she said.

Penalties for distracted driving vary widely across the country, ranging from $115 and four demerits in Quebec, to five demerits and up to $1,200 in fines in Prince Edward Island. In Alberta, distracted driving laws prohibit a range of activities while behind the wheel, including “personal grooming.”

In the neighbouring Northwest Territories fines start at $322 — doubling in school and construction zones — and repeat offenders have their licences suspended.

In the Yukon, distracted drivers face a fine of $250 and three demerit points. Drivers on graduated licenses also lose all experience hours and have to restart the program, even if they are using a hands-free device. Drivers recieve a one-month suspension of their license at 15 demerits. Drivers with graduated licenses have then suspended at seven.

During discussion in the legislative assembly, White said failing to yield at a yield sign carries four demerit points, yet distracted driving — which causes many more fatalities — carries only three.

Whitehorse resident Charles Behan believes higher penalties would be effective. His 18-year-old daughter Jessica was killed in a traffic accident in 2013, just months before her high school graduation.

Behan never received a full explanation of what caused the crash. He says it was distracted driving.

“I’d like to see the penalties go up. (A) $4,000 fine and six demerits. Now, are you going to use your cell phone again? I don’t think so,” he said. “This can’t happen to another family. It’s too much of a toll.”

He and his family have now started a Facebook group called Parents Against Distrated Driving to spread awareness.

Beyond stiffer penalties, Behan also thinks enforcement needs to increase.

“Go to any intersection in town and watch. There are people running red lights, people talking on their phones, not paying attention. There are people texting and driving,” he said. “I blame a lot of this on the RCMP. You don’t see them. They’re not enforcing it.”

Kate White agrees that the government, which sets enforcement priorities for the RCMP, could ask the police to put more focus on distracted driving.

She also thinks the lack of stigma around the issue is a problem. “As a society we frown a lot more on drinking and driving than cell phone use.”

The government has agreed to consult the public on the issue, but has so far given no timeline or scope of the review.

Contact Andrew Seal at andrew.seal@yukon-news.com.

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