A week ago, an Ontario Provincial Police officer patrolling Highway 401 intercepted Carmen Velocci as she motored near Woodstock and charged the 63-year-old with careless driving.
It was alleged that the officer saw her “reading a book in plain sight to the officer while travelling at 100 kilometres per hour,” the OPP said in a press release the next day.
Her arrest was raised again this week after someone snapped a picture of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford as he looked at some papers while behind the wheels of his Cadillac Escalade.
Toronto police, who have jurisdiction over the Gardiner Expressway, where the photo was taken, says there is no ground to charge Mr. Ford on a similar accusation.
A picture of the mayor at a specific moment, looking at a sheaf of papers, is not enough evidence, police and legal experts said.
Officers won’t consider a careless-driving charge unless there is “a pattern of behaviour” resulting in other transgressions, such as speeding, swerving into another lane or striking another vehicle, said Constable Clint Stibbe of the Toronto police traffic services division.
A photograph “standing alone” would be hard to justify the laying of a charge unless it is corroborated by witnesses attesting that the mayor failed to act with due care, said Laurence Cohen, a lawyer who has defended careless-driving cases.
“There has to be evidence that the accused failed to use the care and attention or to give to other persons using the highway the consideration that a driver of ordinary care would have used or given in the circumstance.”
Careless driving is a serious charge under the Ontario Highway Traffic Act.
According to Section 130 of the law, “every person is guilty of the offence of driving carelessly who drives a vehicle or street car on a highway without due care and attention or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the highway.”
Convicted drivers are liable to a fine between $400 to $2,000, losing their driver’s license for up to two years and detention of up to six months.
“It’s a high penalty. It requires you not have any regards for other drivers on the road,” said Cris Biron, a Hamilton paralegal who specializes in defending traffic-related cases.
As a result, cases that end up in court usually also involve collisions, he said.
Chris Conway, a paralegal who founded OTT Legal Services, echoed that opinion.
“There has to be more than something momentary. If you briefly look at something, I don’t think it applies ... They’d want to see some evidence of bad driving. Weaving in the lane or an accident happened.”
A former Toronto police officer, Mr. Conway recalled that he once stopped a man who had a big dog between his arms while he drove. A judge acquitted the man of careless driving.
“If that’s not careless driving, looking at a book isn’t,” Mr. Conway said.
Reading, holding a dog, applying makeup or eating and drinking are not specifically banned in the Ontario Highway Traffic Act.
The Act, however, specifically prohibits motorists from holding a mobile phone or watching an entertainment device while driving.
Still, an Ontario court last month ruled in favour of a Toronto woman caught holding a cellphone while her car was stopped at a red light. She argued that it was a momentary gesture, as she picked up the device after it had dropped to the floor.
Anthony Singhal, a University of Alberta psychologist who studies cognitive distractions, said reading behind the wheel is dangerous, though not as disruptive as phoning or texting because the driver retains a measure of control.
The type of document drivers read also have an incidence on their road performance.
Material that triggers negative feelings would make drivers more erratic while documents that make drivers feel happy also led them to go faster.
“Taking your mind off the road, even if for a split second, is quite dangerous because it takes time for it to come back to the road as well,” Dr. Singhal said. “The switchback to bringing your full mind to bear on the task of driving can take a bit of time.”