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Ontario proposes three demerit points, $1,000 max fine for distracted drivers

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TORONTO - It's time to make distracted driving as unacceptable as drunk driving, Transportation Minister Glen Murray said Monday as he introduced wide ranging legislation that would greatly increase penalties for motorists illegally using cellphones.

The government heard the same message from police, coroner's reports, the Canadian Automobile Association and several other road safety organizations, Murray said.

"All our consultations going back over a number of years on that... everyone has been coming out and saying you've got to put (distracted driving) in the same range as drinking and driving," he said.

Murray's road safety bill would impose three demerit points in addition to increasing the maximum fine for distracted driving to $1,000. Drivers who get demerit points can face higher insurance premiums.

The CAA said education and awareness have turned out not to be enough to stop distracted driving so new tools are needed to fight the problem.

"Half of the surveyed members feel that driving is less safe than it was five years ago, and the need to focus on the road is paramount," said CAA's Teresa Di Felice.

Last month, Chief Justice Annemarie Bonkalo of the Ontario Court of Justice signed an order increasing the set fine for distracted driving to $280, including surcharges, from $155 starting March 18.

Current legislation allows for fines ranging from $60 to $500. That would jump to $300 to $1,000 under the proposed new legislation.

"Most of our more serious offences are in the $300 to $1,000 range, and the justices were obviously sending us a message," Murray told reporters.

The new bill would also increase fines for motorists who open their car door and hit a bicyclist to up to $1000 and boost demerit points to three from the current two.

The legislation would also allow bicycle lanes to go in the opposite direction to traffic on one-way streets and let cyclists use paved shoulders of divided highways. It would also require motorists to leave a distance of at least one metre between their vehicles and cyclists when passing, a clear rule Murray said he found is needed as he bicycles to and from the legislature in downtown Toronto each day.

"I've had cars that have come within an inch of me and ones that are a foot away and ones that are ridiculous and go three metres out, and that is what's dangerous," he said. "We don't need people swerving three or four metres away from cyclists and we don't need cyclists pulling up one inch beside a car."

Eleanor McMahon of the Share the Road bicycle advocacy group said the government's proposed changes "strike quite close to home" and might have saved her husband's life if they had been in place in 2006 when he was struck and killed by a motorist while bicycling on a narrow road.

"My husband, OPP Sgt. Greg Stobbart, was killed by a motorist who pulled out to pass him unsafely and had this bill been in place years ago, Greg might be with us here today," she said. "As the wife of a police officer, I'm proud that this law will give our officers the tools they need to keep our roads safe for our most vulnerable."

The legislation also mandates intensive alcohol education, treatment and monitoring programs for motorists convicted of repeated drinking and driving offences.

It also looks at broadening the number of health professionals who could recommend someone should have their drivers' licence taken away for medical reasons, but Murray said it will also look at methods to return the licence in future if possible.

"We need clearer rules, and the Canadian Medical Association and the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons are in the middle of establishing those," he said. "We are looking to work with those health care professionals to establish those rules and then create a system where people understand what the choices are."

Murray said one option Ontario may consider is reverse graduated licences for seniors, similar to the restricted licences new drivers are given, which would be for those who only want to drive occasionally and not at night.

The legislation would also require drivers to yield the whole roadway to pedestrians at school crossings and pedestrian crossovers.

"Pedestrians still represent about one in six of all motor vehicle-related fatalities in Ontario, and 41 per cent of these occurred at intersections," said Murray.

Another aspect of the bill would increase the maximum length of double tractor-trailers in Ontario to 27.5 metres from 25, but the Ontario Truckers Association said it's not about carrying bigger loads.

"Before anybody starts to panic, that does not mean we’re going to see longer trailers," said Truckers spokesman David Bradley. "This is purely and simply to allow for a longer tractor to be able to accommodate all of the new environmental and safety devices that are now required across the country and across North America."

The opposition parties also welcomed Murray's proposed legislation, which incorporated aspects of several private member's bills on road safety issues.

"This is an all-party bill and I hope it will quickly gain the confidence of this House," said Murray.

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