Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler has brought in a tough new bill that he says will make distracted driving an offence as serious in Manitoba as impaired driving.

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This article was published 16/3/2018 (1565 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler has brought in a tough new bill that he says will make distracted driving an offence as serious in Manitoba as impaired driving.

Schuler told the legislature Friday morning that Bill 17, the Drivers and Vehicles Amendment and Highway Traffic Amendment Act, would impose a roadside three-day suspension for a first offence of using a hand-operated electronic device while driving, and seven days for the second offence.

Schuler hinted later in a scrum with reporters that the legislation could go further than that and could significantly expand the definition of what constitutes distracted driving. "Distracted driving includes grooming your dog, putting makeup on, reading a book," Schuler said.

A bizarre day at the legislature Friday prevented Schuler from revealing most of what’s in the bill until Monday.

Twice, the NDP forced one-hour procedural delays over protests that the government of Premier Brian Pallister is violating the opposition’s rights.

The procedural delays blocked Schuler from distributing the bill in the house before it was forced to adjourn until Monday, and until then he is legally prevented from discussing its contents.

Schuler briefly had time to tell members in the house that the bill would impose the roadside suspensions.

That is only "a little bit" of the bill, Schuler later told reporters.

He called it "life-saving" on Twitter, and Tory backbencher Nic Curry tweeted that the bill will "further criminalize distracted driving."

Manitoba Public Insurance figures show that collisions related to impaired driving dropped from 230 in 2011 to 145 in 2016, but collisions involving distracted drivers soared from 2,415 to 11,086, Schuler said.

The province consulted a wide range of experts and expects they’ll applaud the bill when they finally read it Monday, Schuler said. His department is confident the bill will stand up to a constitutional challenges.

"As a government, we take distracted driving as seriously as impaired driving," he said.

"This is a big step in making distracted driving a very serious issue. We’ve moved heaven and earth to get this in front of the legislature today — this is Charter (of Rights and Freedoms) proof," he declared.

"It’s not just young people, it’s everybody," he said. And it’s not just hand-held devices jeopardizing safety, the minister said, hinting that the bill will entrench a wide range of activities that takes drivers’ eyes off the road and hands off the wheel.

Unfortunately, Schuler said, the soaring accident figures show that too many people just don’t get it. "Most people feel this isn’t a really big deal. This is going to have to change our behaviour."

Schuler called Bill 17 made-in-Manitoba legislation that will be unique to Manitoba. Currently, he said, there are no suspensions in Manitoba for distracted driving.

"Right now, you get caught, it’s a $204 fine," he said. "This is the first time people are going to say, ‘OK, they mean it,’" he said.

Schuler wouldn’t talk about any further penalties in his bill, which he hopes will become law by summer. Asked about jail terms, he replied, "We are not going to talk about that until Monday."

NDP infrastructure critic Jim Maloway told reporters that New Democrats are generally supportive of what they know about the bill, but "the minister doesn’t understand the rules."

The NDP twice delayed business for an hour each time Friday, telling Speaker Myrna Driedger that the Pallister government has been violating house rules about how much notice opposition members should receive about bills and ministerial statements.

New Democrats opposed giving the consent of the house for Schuler to introduce Bill 17 for first reading, then came back an hour later to vote in favour of first reading.

Meanwhile, Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth and other key players in law enforcement and traffic safety left the legislature after Schuler told them he couldn’t legally brief them on the bill until Monday.

They were in the public gallery during what Schuler called "NDP shenanigans," then went to his office to be briefed on the bill’s details, only to be told rules precluded Schuler’s telling them anything on Friday.

During the first procedural delay, as bells rang, Schuler used Twitter to hint at Bill 17’s contents, even though he had yet to table it.

"This morning our government would like to introduce legislation dealing with the alarming increase in distracted driving accidents," Schuler said.

In a second Twitter message, Schuler said that, "The NDP have stalled the introduction of this life-saving legislation and are now playing politics with people’s lives."

Curry tweeted: "The NDP are playing politics with safety."

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca