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Does sneezing count as distracted driving? I have allergies all year. I recently had a sneezing attack with my daughter-in-law in the car (I was able to keep driving). She said that I could have been charged if a cop had seen me. –

Ruth, Vancouver

While sneezing behind the wheel doesn’t count as distracted driving anywhere in Canada, it’s still nothing to sneeze at.

If a sneezing fit causes you to lose control of your car, you could face charges for careless driving, a Vancouver lawyer said.

“Sneezing [while] driving is not explicitly distracted driving,” said Kyla Lee, a Vancouver-based criminal defence lawyer. “I think it’s probably pretty difficult for the government to prohibit people from sneezing while driving because it’s an uncontrollable biological function that happens to everyone.”

In most provinces, including British Columbia, distracted driving laws ban holding or touching a hand-held electronic device. Most of those laws don’t cover other kinds of distractions, such as eating, drinking, smoking, reading, grooming or reaching for objects.

But, every province has laws against careless driving that require “you to be driving with due care and attention, and reasonable consideration for other road users,” Lee said.

In B.C., for instance, a charge for driving without due care and attention carries a fine of $368 and six demerit points, said RCMP Constable Mike Moore, a spokesman for B.C. Highway Patrol.

While there is “no hard [and] fast rule about sneezing, coughing or bodily functions while driving,” you could face careless driving charges, depending on the severity of the crash or your driving behaviour, Moore said.

Lee said it’s up to officers to decide whether to charge you. A “one-off” sneezing attack that you hadn’t expected might not land you a careless-driving ticket. But you could get one if you’re sick or having a bad allergy day and you know that sneezing worsens your driving, but you decide to drive anyway, Lee said.

“As soon as you get into a situation where you’re knowingly getting behind the wheel [despite] something that’s impacting your ability to drive safely, you fall within the ambit of those provisions,” Lee said.

Careless driving laws are a catch-all that covers dangerous driving behaviour that may not be covered by other laws, Lee said.

“And they’re interpreted quite broadly,” she said. “So [they] give a lot of latitude to police officers.”

So, would it be tough for police to prove you knew you weren’t fit to drive?

“It could be difficult to prove it, but it wouldn’t be impossible,” Lee said. “In most traffic-ticket scenarios where a police officer shows up after an accident or sees you driving abnormally, they’re not going to be able to gather that evidence.”

But if you were in a crash that caused a death or serious injuries, police may start digging, she said.

“[That includes] interviewing witnesses and checking your social media,” Lee said. “Because maybe you’re complaining about how bad your allergies are. … Or you’ve posted a photo of your positive COVID test.”

‘Don’t suffer in silence’

There’s not much research on allergies and driving, said Susan Waserman, a professor of medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and president of the Canadian Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Foundation.

“We have better data on things like sedating antihistamines and air travel accidents and car [accidents], and they’ve clearly been implicated,” Waserman said. “But people whose allergies are not controlled are going to have fits of sneezing, which may interfere with any activity – driving included.”

Unpredictable sneezing is a sign of allergic rhinitis – when your eyes, nose and throat react to allergens, she said. It’s not limited to spring and fall pollen season, either.

“It’s all year round,” Waserman said. “People are allergic to pets, to dust mites, to mould – there are plenty of perennial allergy sufferers.”

Allergies can make it difficult to focus on the road, even if you’re not sneezing. For instance, a 2014 Dutch study showed that hay fever can impair driving as much as a couple of alcoholic drinks, and first-generation antihistamines, including Benadryl, can make it even worse.

“We tend to not use any sedating antihistamines any more,” Waserman said. “We use [second-generation] non-sedating antihistamines, intranasal steroid sprays, tablets under the tongue to desensitize people to different allergens – and of course we have allergy shots, which have been with us for over a hundred years.”

If you’re feeling a sneezing fit coming on, stay focused on the road and pull over safely.

“I mean, otherwise, you’re not going to be able to concentrate and manage your vehicle,” Waserman said.

If you know you have allergies, treat them before you have to drive, Waserman said.

“The quickest antihistamines take an hour to become effective; the sprays take about 15 minutes,” she said. “There’s no magic, no quick fix – the message is prevention.”

If your allergies interfere with work, sleep and driving, you should ask your doctor for a referral to an allergist, Waserman said.

“I see people walk in after years of suffering with pretty intolerable symptoms because nobody felt that it was worth their while to come in and see an allergist,” Waserman said. “Don’t suffer in silence. I mean, it needs proper treatment. Ask for it, and if you don’t get it, ask for it again.”

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