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driving concerns

Given the terrible incident in Minnesota this month, I wonder if Canada has a similar law prohibiting anything hanging from a vehicle’s rearview mirror. – C.

No province has a law banning hanging Little Trees, or anything else, from a rearview mirror, but they all ban anything that blocks your view of the road.

For instance, section 442 of Quebec’s Highway Safety Code states that you can’t drive a vehicle if “a passenger, an animal or an object is so placed as to obstruct the driver’s view or to interfere with the proper handling of the vehicle.”

The other provinces all have similar rules. The fines range from $80 to $110.

In the U.S., bans on objects hanging from rearview mirrors in several states have been used as an excuse to pull drivers over, critics of the laws say.

A bill was introduced in Minnesota’s legislature this month to repeal its law. That move came after Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was fatally shot during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minn.

In a phone call, Wright told his mother that he was pulled over because of an air freshener. Police said it was because of expired licence-plate stickers.

Not cause for a stop?

Sgt. Kerry Schmidt, with Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) highway safety division, said he’s never heard of drivers being pulled over just for objects hanging from their rearview mirrors.

“No, people mount their cell phones and hang all kinds of stuff,” Schmidt said. “As long as it does not obstruct the driver’s view, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”

Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO) said there were 441 convictions in 2019 for the offence in Ontario, which comes with an $85 fine.

Cpl. Mike Halskov, spokesman for British Columbia RCMP traffic services, said the offence isn’t usually the main reason for police to pull someone over.

“We might stop somebody for speeding, and it might be the secondary offence,” Halskov said. “Or we might issue a ticket if [the object] was found to be a contributing factor in a collision.”

In B.C. in 2018, police issued 180 tickets for driving with an obstructed windshield.

You have to be able to see out your windshield, so anything that blocks your view – whether it’s snow and mud or fuzzy dice hanging from the mirror – is dangerous, Halskov said.

“You could miss something really important, like a pedestrian, cyclist or other cars,” Halskov said, adding that he’d probably give a warning instead of a ticket. “If it were me talking to someone at the side of the road, I would try to explain that.”

When pulled over, pull over

What do you have to do when police signal you to pull over? Specific rules vary by province. In Ontario, section 216 of the Highway Traffic Act says you must immediately come to a safe stop.

If you don’t, you could face a fine between $1,000 and $10,000 and up to six months in jail. If it turns into a chase, fines could soar to $25,000.

Once you stop, you should “stay in the vehicle, put your hands on the wheel, turn on the interior light and wait for the officer to approach,” the OPP’s Schmidt said.

While people often start rummaging through their glove compartment to find their insurance and registration papers, it’s best to wait until you’re asked, the RCMP’s Halskov said.

“Some officers will have a heightened sense of awareness when they see somebody moving around in the car, even though what the person is doing may be innocent,” Halskov said.

When you’ve been pulled over, you’re legally required to show your licence, vehicle registration and insurance.

Legally, you don’t have to answer any questions beyond that – although polite co-operation might get you on your way with just a warning.

“This is an area where the law is one thing and what one ought to do is another,” said Michael Bryant executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

“People have a right to remain silent, of course,” Bryant said. “But sometimes, that silence may provoke more aggressive, illegal action by the police force.”

Even if you think your rights are being violated, it might be safer to cooperate, since “any legal wrong can be remedied later,” Bryant said.

If you co-operate, you might still end up getting charged with traffic offences and have to hire a lawyer to defend you. But if you don’t co-operate, you could face more serious charges, including obstructing justice or resisting arrest, Bryant said.

Bryant said traffic stops do go wrong in Canada, but it’s not clear how big a problem it is.

“Statistically, we don’t have enough information to say how dangerous it is to stand up for your rights,” Bryant said.

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com and put ‘Driving Concerns’ in your subject line. Emails without the correct subject line may not be answered. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.