Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bigger ding for that text in car

Distracted-driver demerits coming

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Getting caught sending that text when behind the wheel is soon going to get a lot more costly.

Premier Greg Selinger said the province will soon add demerit points to motorists police catch using their cellphone or texting while driving.

The added penalty will serve as a double and perhaps even triple whammy -- on top of the $200 fine, drivers will lose whatever discount they may enjoy now and those with too many demerits will pay more to renew their driver's licence and vehicle insurance. Under Manitoba Public Insurance's driver-rating system, moving down the demerit scale costs drivers more to renew their licence, anywhere from $100 to $2,500, depending on their driving record.

"This is a behaviour that is extremely dangerous," Selinger said. "There's more and more research coming out showing that being distracted by these cellphone devices and texting is as much of a distraction as sometimes being intoxicated, that it can be a very, very serious impairment on your ability to see what's going on on the road."

Selinger said an additional penalty is that if people build up too many demerits, they could lose the privilege to drive.

"A demerit has a long-term impact on your ability to drive," he said. "If you get too many demerits, then your licence can come up for review."

Selinger said adding demerits to the offence -- a decision has not been made if it will be three or four demerits -- is needed as the number of drivers caught using a mobile device when driving has not decreased in the time since the law was brought in three years ago. It will become effective this spring through a cabinet decision.

"It's actually continued to grow every year," Selinger said of the number of offences. "The evidence showed an increasing number of infractions every year and that trend was disturbing because it puts more Manitobans at risk."

Those numbers were supplied to the province by the Winnipeg Police Service.

Last month, city police ticketed 221 people using their phones while driving, traffic unit Staff Sgt. Rob Riffel said.

Riffel said in the second half of 2010 (from when the law took effect) 1,192 tickets were issued; in 2011, 3,568 tickets were issued; and in 2012, 4,837 tickets were issued. So far in 2013, 764 tickets have been issued.

Since the law against using cellphones while driving came into effect in July 2010, police have issued 10,361 tickets.

According to the CAA website, once Manitoba adds demerits to cellphone fines, only Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia will fine drivers without giving them demerits.

MPI spokesman Brian Smiley said research shows drivers who text are 23 times more likely to get into a crash than a non-texting driver.

"Texting when driving is an extremely dangerous driver behaviour," Smiley said.

CAA Manitoba spokeswoman Liz Peters said the agency supports the additional penalty as a fine alone is not a significant enough deterrent for drivers to put down the personal electronic devices while driving.

She said a recent CAA survey shows its membership supports adding demerits.

"Our members have softened to it definitely over the last three years," she said. "What members have told us is that they just keep seeing more and more people talking and texting and it makes people frightened, it makes people wary of what's going on the road around them."

She added in a February 2013 survey, 77.6 per cent of the 8,651 respondents agreed demerits should be added to the fine.

That was up from 66 per cent on the same survey in February 2012, and up from 58 per cent on the same survey in 2011.

CAA does not recommend hand-free phones and it believes they can be as equally distracting for drivers.

"Hands on the wheel, eyes on the road and mind on the road is what we need to be thinking about when we're behind the wheel," she said.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2013 A5

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