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The rules around distracted driving can be a little fuzzy — not everyone’s clear on exactly what you can get pulled over for. Is it okay to set up your GPS while on the road? What about eating and driving?

Distracted driving rules work best when we’re all aware of the reasons we can be pulled over. We know we can’t text and drive, but is it okay to plug directions into our GPS? What about eating and driving?

Can I eat or drink while driving?

There’s no law saying you can’t eat or drink — non-alcoholic beverages of course — and drive. But depending on the circumstances you can still be charged with careless or dangerous driving.

Imagine pulling a handful of fries from a paper bag on the passenger seat or glancing down to grab a hot coffee from the cup holder while going 120 km/hour on the highway. With your eyes off the road, you could swerve out of your lane or fail to break in time if the car ahead suddenly slows down. 

In these situations, a police officer has the discretion to charge you with careless or even dangerous driving.

If you’re charged with careless driving

Careless driving is the lesser of the two charges since it’s a non-criminal offence that falls under the Highway Traffic Act. Still, the penalties can include:

  • Fines ranging from $400 to $2,000
  • A six-month jail sentence
  • Suspension of your licence for up to two years
  • Six demerit points

If you’re charged with dangerous driving

Being charged with dangerous driving is more serious since it falls under the Criminal Code of Cana-da. If you’re found guilty, the penalties can include:

  • A jail term of up to 10 years even if you didn’t cause bodily harm, up to 14 years if you did, and up to life if you caused someone’s death
  • A fine of at least $1,000
  • Suspension of your licence
  • A criminal record

While both charges will result in a higher insurance rate, a difference between the two charges is that dangerous driving implies you had intent to commit the action and knew, or should have known, what you did was dangerous.

Distracted driving laws and your devices

In October 2009, it became illegal to use handheld communication or entertainment devices while driving. Then, in 2019, tougher laws came into effect.

What can or can’t I do with a device while driving?

If the engine is running, whether your car is moving or stopped, it’s illegal to have a phone or other device in your hand or even touch it. The ban includes but is not limited to making calls, sending texts, checking email and programming your GPS. To avoid getting into trouble, set up directions ahead of time and enable voice commands. No brainer here but you’re also prohibited from using a tablet, port-able gaming device or watching a video while driving.

However, you are allowed to use a hands-free wireless device with an earpiece, lapel button or Blue-tooth, and can look at a GPS device built into the car or securely mounted on the dashboard.

An exception to the handheld ban is that you can touch your phone to call 911 in an emergency.

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Using your phone hinders situational awareness

Distracted driving laws were put into place for good reason. Consider these statistics from CAA:

  • Checking a text for five seconds while driving 90 km/hour is the same as crossing an entire football field while blindfolded
  • Drivers are four times more likely to have an accident while talking on a phone
  • In some parts of Canada fatalities caused by distracted driving exceed those caused by impaired driving

Though we’ve gotten used to multitasking, our brains work much better when focused on one thing at a time. That focus is crucial when steering a 2,000-kilogram machine down a busy road at high speed. 

How much can I be fined under Ontario’s distracted driving laws?

Previously, drivers received a maximum fine of $490 and in some cases lost a few demerit points. Now the system penalizes you based on your record

First offence

  • Minimum $615 fine that can be raised to $1,000 if you receive a summons or fight the ticket in court and lose
  • Three-day suspension
  • Three demerit points

Second offence

  • Minimum $615 fine that can be raised to $2,000 if you receive a summons or fight the ticket in court and lose
  • Seven-day suspension
  • Six demerit points

Third offence

  • Minimum $615 fine that can be raised to $3,000 if you receive a summons or fight the ticket in court and lose
  • 30-day suspension
  • Six demerit points

New drivers (those with G1, G2, M1 or M2 licenses) get longer suspensions but don’t receive demerit points.

Other forms of distracted driving that may result in charges or fines

Grooming 

Shaving or putting on makeup while driving is not a good idea. Remember that infamous video of a BC motorist curling her hair while driving down a highway? While there’s no specific law that mentions curling irons, if caught, she would’ve been charged with careless driving — which at the time carried a fine of $368.

Smoking

Avoid smoking while driving. There’s no law saying you can’t but something as quick as ashing a cigarette could steal your attention at a critical moment. Also it’s illegal to smoke in cars with children under 16. This carries a $250 fine.

Reading

It’s tempting to glance over at that newspaper on the passenger seat while you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Don’t do it!

Reaching

Ensure anything you may genuinely need while driving (like sunglasses) can be easily accessed. Reaching into the glove box or back seat can lead to a careless or dangerous driving situation.

Will I really be pulled over for small violations?

Technically, the chances are slim you’ll be pulled over for sipping a coffee while driving. Often these non-electronic transgressions are only identified after a collision. But why take the chance? But, if you have a phone or electronic device in your hand, you have a much greater chance of being stopped. 

Distracted driving isn’t worth the risk 

Distracted driving isn’t worth that “On my way” text or bite of your morning bagel. If it’s urgent, pull over. If it can wait, let it wait. Keep your eyes on the road and your mind focused on your surroundings to keep both yourself and other motorists, cyclists and pedestrians safe.

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