Manitoba’s Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler recently introduced Bill 17 on Monday, March 19. The proposed legislation is titled the Drivers and Vehicles Amendment and Highway Traffic Act and it amends current provincial legislation to allow police officers to immediately issue a driver’s license suspension for any distracted driving offences. Currently, distracted drivers receive five demerits and a $204 ticket as punishment for any infractions. Under the proposed changes, an offender would also receive a three-day license suspension for a first offence and a seven-day license suspension for any repeated violations. In order to get home, the offender would be granted a temporary 24-hour license upon being issued the charge, and their suspension would start when the temporary license expires. A charge of distracted driving is generally issued to people caught using their cellphones and other hand-held equipment while driving. The charge, however, does not apply to hands-free devices.
Bill 17 would also increase the punishment for any careless driving offence, which is generally issued to drivers at the wheel who simultaneously engage in activities such as eating, grooming an animal, putting on makeup, or reading a book. Careless driving is currently limited to a fine. Under the proposed changes, the punishment for careless driving would be increased to an issuance of two demerits plus a possible license suspension. Furthermore, it would require the Registrar of Motor Vehicles to review the record of any driver charged with careless driving to determine if any additional measures should be taken against the offender.
The purpose of this legislation appears to increase public safety by deterring drivers from using their cellphones and engaging in any other distracting activities while they are driving. Schuler noted that “there has been an unprecedented four-fold increase in the number of accidents involving distracted drivers between 2011 and 2016, with no decline in serious injuries or fatal collisions caused by distracted driving in Manitoba.” Statistics also show that in 2016, distracted driving contributed to 29 percent of serious collisions.
The proposed legislation, however, has raised important concerns about due process. Len Eastoe, the founder of Traffic Ticket Experts, says the changes are fundamentally unfair. Speaking on the proposed changes, Eastoe stated that “the immediate suspension means you’re putting a penalty in place before a person’s even been found guilty. You’ve suspended them for three days, it’s done. You take away our system because the system is you get to go before court and the evidence has to come out in front of an adjudicator. Here we make the police officer the witness, the judge, the jury and decides the penalty.” The Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba has also criticized the proposed changes. The Association’s spokesman, Scott Newman, stated that “we’re concerned about a lack of judicial oversight and due process for roadside suspensions, police officers can make mistakes and when you’re making decisions that are as impactful as a suspension, they should be done in a courtroom, not at the roadside.”
Although police officers are already able to immediately suspend a driver’s license if the driver has consumed alcohol beyond the legal limit, this is significantly easier to test and verify. These types of suspensions raise less due process concerns because they are supported by strict evidence obtained from a breathalyzer test. Distracted and careless driving have no such test. To issue a suspension under the proposed changes, a police officer only needs to claim that they saw a motorist using a cellphone. This will remain an issue simply because police officers, like all people, are capable of making mistakes. Furthermore, what exactly constitutes a “distracted” or “careless” activity remains somewhat ambiguous, leaving it entirely possible that a police officer could issue a charge where a judge may have not. Although the goal of deterring unsafe behaviour while driving is certainly a worthwhile one, it nevertheless seems important to consider ways to advance that goal without impeding on due process.
This blog post was written by a CCLA-PBSC RightsWatch student. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCLA or PBSC.