Police optimistic about higher fines for distracted driving

Const. Matthew Rutherford sees drivers looking at their cell phones behind the wheel on a daily basis.

Cruising around in an unmarked Victoria police car, Const. Matthew Rutherford sees drivers looking at their cell phones behind the wheel on a daily basis.

It’s a sight that often makes him angry given the extensive public awareness campaigns that have taken place throughout the years to educate drivers about the dangers of looking at their cell phone while driving — an act that’s become one of the major causes of crashes in B.C.

But now that the province is planning to hand out stiffer penalties for distracted driving — with the cost for a first offence pegged at $543 — Rutherford is optimistic drivers will start changing their behaviour behind the wheel.

“Five-hundred dollars is a big hit to the pocket,” said Rutherford, noting officers see a lot of repeat offenders. “We’re out there, we’re enforcing it and if you’re going to still use your phone on a regular basis, you will eventually be caught.”

Earlier this week, B.C. Solicitor General Mike Morris announced that effective June 1, the fine for distracted driving will go up from $167 to $368. Drivers will also be assessed four penalty points, triggering another $175 that will be added to their insurance premiums.

The same driver who commits a second offence within 12 months will face a total penalty of $888. A third offence would cost more than $3,000. Two tickets a year will also trigger an automatic review by the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles that could result in a licence suspension.

The move to increase fines comes after public consultation during the past year found support for a tougher approach.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone said the public awareness campaigns have not convinced enough people of the dangers of trying to use mobile phones or other devices without hands-free services.

“Imagine trying to drive the length of a football field while you’re blindfolded,” Stone said.

In 2014, distracted and inattentive driving was a factor in the deaths of 66 people in B.C. Another 630 people were injured.

No statistics were available specifically for Victoria, but police have placed plain clothes officers on city streets to simply watch what drivers are doing behind the wheel, particularly when they’re stopped at a red light.

Officers found those aged 16 to late 20s seem to be the worst when it comes to texting behind the wheel. Many don’t realize that sending a message on their phone while stopped at a light is still considered distracted driving.

“You need to be aware of your surroundings at all times when you are driving,” said Rutherford. “That means if you are stopped at a red light, you are monitoring people around you rather than having your head down in a phone.”

The new penalties put B.C. near the top for distracted driving fines in Canada. Ontario and Prince Edward Island have the highest fines, ranging from $500 to $1,200, according to the Canadian Automobile Association.

— with files from Tom Fletcher