Distracted driving penalties just got a whole lot tougher — here’s what you need to know

MLA Joe Hargrave at a previous event (Herald file photo)

The first-time ticket for driving distracted in Saskatchewan is about to more than double what it used to be, and future penalties only go up from there.

Taking effect on Saturday, the first offence is a $580 ticket and four demerits. A second offence within a year is a $1,400 ticket, an additional four demerits and an immediate seven-day vehicle seizure.

If you drive distracted for a third time within the year, you’ll be paying a $2,100 ticket, four more demerits and another seven-day vehicle seizure.

The province decided to steepen distracted driving penalties because cellphone use was out of control, according to the Minister Responsible for SGI, Joe Hargrave, who’s also the MLA for Prince Albert Carlton.

In 2018, driver distraction or inattention was a factor in more than 6,000 collisions, resulting in 774 injuries and 22 deaths.

“Think about that—that’s just wrong,” said Hargrave.

The good news though, he explained, is since SGI announced the tougher penalties in mid-November, there’s been a significant drop in tickets for driving distracted.

In the first 10 months of 2019, police issued a monthly average of nearly 900 tickets. That number dropped in November to 653, and further in December to 534.

“That tells me that people are listening and people are going ‘Okay, enough. It’s time to change. It’s time to change my habits,’” said Hargrave.

But it’s not just cellphone use that will land you face-to-face with a police officer, although it is the overwhelming majority of offences.

Under the Traffic Safety Act, explained SGI spokesperson Tyler McMurchy, there’s two laws: one involving cellphone use and the other for driving without due care and attention.

“The vast majority of tickets that we see are related to the cellphone law because it’s pretty cut and dry—if you have a cellphone in your hand, that is against the law,” he said.

As for driving without due care and attention, it’s impossible to list the activities that will get you a ticket.

That’s because it’s not about the activity itself, but the unsafe driving behaviour, said McMurchy.

“There’s an infinite number of potential things that could distract a driver if they allow it to,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to do them under the law.”

McMurchy used the example of food. If you’re eating a messy sandwich and paying more attention to sauce following on your lap than the road, you’re driving distracted.

Taking a sip of coffee, though, while keeping one hand on the wheel and your eyes on the road is allowed.

SGI does, however, list a number of activities that could distract a driver. These include reading, including maps, talking to passengers, drinking and eating, grooming, adjusting the radio, watching a video and smoking.

“What it’s about is being safe and making good decisions on the road. If you’re decision is to focus on the road, definitely,” added Hargrave.

“It’s all part of making our roadways safer, and that’s a personal passion of mine.”

Emergency personnel—police, paramedics and firefighters—are exempt from these penalties if they’re carrying out emergency duties.

Earlier this week, SGI announced that fewer people were killed on Saskatchewan roads last year since the year it started keeping record.

Preliminary statistics indicated 71 people were killed in collisions in 2019, while the record low was 73 in 1951.