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Ontario’s distracted-driving law only applies to drivers using hand-held electronic devices.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

In Ontario, we can now get a licence suspension for distracted driving now and I’ve been arguing with my mom about what that actually means. She says it means you can’t eat or drink or do anything else distracting while driving, such as touch your phone or fiddle with the radio. So what’s actually illegal? – Tasha, Oshawa

If you need to ask whether something’s illegal to do while driving, you probably shouldn’t be doing it – especially if it takes your attention off the road, police say.

“People keep asking, ‘Will I get charged for drinking a cup of coffee or eating a burger?’” said Staff Sergeant Carole Dionne, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) spokeswoman. “Eating a sandwich with one hand might not get you charged [with distracted driving], but if it leads to you swerving or getting into a crash, that will be looked into as careless driving.”

But, Ontario’s distracted-driving law – Section 78.1 of the Highway Traffic Act (HTA) – only applies to drivers using hand-held electronic devices.

On Jan. 1, the minimum penalty rose to $615 from $490. If you fight the ticket and lose, the fine could top out at $1,000 on first conviction.

And, you’ll now get an automatic suspension if convicted – three days on the first conviction, seven days on the second and 30 days on the third.

You’ll still get three demerit points for the offence – six, if you’ve been convicted of the same offence in the past five years.

In 2018, Manitoba and Quebec also started giving suspensions for distracted driving.

What you can’t do

In Ontario, you can’t physically hold a device while driving, including if you’re stopped at a light.

If your phone is properly mounted in a holder, you can touch the screen only to start or end an hands-free call.

But you can’t text, dial, scroll through a playlist, physically enter a destination or otherwise fiddle with the screen unless you’re safely pulled over and in park.

“In an emergency, drivers can use a phone to call 911; but, it is recommended that they pull off the road to a safe area to make the call,” Bob Nichols, Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) spokesman, said in an e-mail.

The law applies to all portable devices – but it doesn’t cover your car’s built-in infotainment and navigation systems.

The laws vary by province – in British Columbia, for instance, you can be charged if you’re caught looking at your phone if it’s not mounted.

“Use is defined as watching the screen,” said Sergeant Lorne Lecker, with RCMP’s Deas Island traffic services in Surrey, B.C. “If a device is sitting in the cupholder and the screen is blank, it’s not illegal – if it rings and you even look at it and an officer sees you, that’s illegal.”

In B.C., the first conviction is a $368 fine and four demerit points. Those points add an extra $175 to your insurance premiums.

Careless driving?

If you’re doing anything distracting that’s not covered by your province’s distracted driving law, you can still face charges if the distraction hurts your driving or contributes to a crash.

In Ontario, for instance, you can be charged under HTA section 130 and face a $400-$2,000 fine, up to six months in jail and an up-to-two-year licence suspension. You could also be charged with dangerous driving under the Criminal Code of Canada.

In B.C., the same charge, under Section 144 of the Motor Vehicle Act will get you a $368 fine and six demerits.

“If officers see that you are not driving properly or appear to be multitasking, you can be charged,” Sgt. Lecker said, “I attended a collision where a guy died in my arms because he was eating his breakfast and crashed into a tree.”

Some civil-liberties advocates have worried that the new distracted penalties could be used to target minorities.

“There’s no arguing the fact that distracted driving is still the leading cause of fatalities,” the OPP’s Staff Sgt. Dionne said. “For all people, when you’re driving, your main task is to be driving safely.”

In 2017, 83 people were killed in crashes caused by inattentive driving on Ontario roads patrolled by the OPP – compared with 46 deaths caused by drivers impaired by drugs or alcohol, Staff Sgt. Dionne said.

Have a driving question? Send it to Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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