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Ontario to reintroduce bill to toughen penalties for distracted driving

TORONTO - Drivers in Ontario could soon face much stiffer penalties for texting behind the wheel, as the governing Liberals are set to reintroduce a bill that would boost the maximum fine to $1,000.

Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca said Tuesday that he plans to reintroduce the distracted driving bill, which died when the June 12 election was called, as "disturbing or worrying trend lines" emerge.

"I think this is really important for our government to draw a line in the sand, so to speak, and make sure people understand that we can't let it spiral out of control, that we do need to get a handle on it very clearly," he said at a news conference.

Ontario Provincial Police said earlier this year that distracted driving was becoming the No. 1 killer on the roads. It accounted for more deaths in 2013 than impaired or speed-related incidents in crashes they investigated, the provincial police said.

A recent Centre for Addiction and Mental Health survey found that more than one-third of licensed Ontario students in Grades 10 to 12 - an estimated 108,000 teens - reported having texted while behind the wheel at least once in the past year.

Among Grade 12 students alone, 46 per cent of those who drive said they also texted at least once while operating a vehicle, according to the 2013 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey.

Yet the student surveys have found that the percentage of students who reported drinking and driving has declined dramatically over the past 20 years.

Del Duca said public awareness campaigns have had a positive impact on reducing impaired driving, but the work to end dangerous behaviours behind the wheel "doesn't stop" whether it's impaired or distracted driving.

"We have to make sure that we push hard, that we introduce penalties that will serve as a deterrent, but that we also raise public awareness to make sure people do understand very clearly what the consequences could be for making the wrong decision," Del Duca said.

The bill, which would impose three demerit points in addition to increasing the maximum fine, will be reintroduced soon after the legislature resumes for its fall session in October, Del Duca said.

The transportation minister expects it will pass. The Liberals won a majority in the recent election and even when the legislation was first proposed earlier this year the opposition parties welcomed it, as it incorporated aspects of several private member's bills on road safety issues.

Using handheld devices to text, email or talk while driving, except for 911 calls, has been banned in Ontario since 2009.

But the Liberals have expressed concern that the current fines aren't sufficient, given that there have been 235,000 charges laid in the previous three years.

Current legislation allows for fines ranging from $60 to $500. That would jump to $300 to $1,000 under the proposed new legislation, the government said when it proposed the bill in March.

Chief Justice Annemarie Bonkalo of the Ontario Court of Justice signed an order in February increasing the set fine for distracted driving from $155 to $280, including surcharges.

Candian Underwriter