Reevely: Even tougher penalties for distracted driving coming to Ontario

The Ontario government wants to start suspending the drivers’ licences of people caught texting at the wheel and jailing drivers who kill people while driving carelessly, Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca announced Wednesday.

The point, said Del Duca, is to “keep the most vulnerable road users — including pedestrians and cyclists — safe.”

It’s the province’s second legal crackdown on distracted driving in two years. In June 2015, the Liberals passed a law increasing the fines for distracted driving and applying demerit points to convicted drivers’ licences.

It doesn’t seem to have taken. Deaths among vulnerable road users were about the same last year as in the years before; Ottawa sees a steady eight to 10 pedestrians and cyclists killed in collisions each year.

Stiffening penalties doesn’t make anybody more likely to be caught but it does increase the consequences if they are. Until now, the Highway Traffic Act’s philosophy has been agnostic about the consequences of bad driving. If you change lanes without shoulder-checking, for instance, the action is the same regardless of whether you hit nobody, crunch into a tractor-trailer, or kill a cyclist.

Driving recklessly can be a violation of separate provincial and federal laws, which dish out separate penalties. Dangerous driving causing death is a federal crime that can theoretically bring a 14-year prison term; in extreme cases there’s another federal charge, criminal negligence causing death, for which the maximum sentence is life in prison. These charges are rarely laid.