Novice drivers having a phone in sight isn’t distracted driving, B.C. court rules

By: Lisa Coxon on December 12, 2019

A B.C. man who was given a distracted driving ticket in Burnaby last year has successfully appealed the fine at the Supreme Court.

According to CBC News, a police officer pulled over Hunter John Sangret in April 2018 because he saw an electronic device mounted inside his vehicle. At the time, Sangret held a Class 7 “N” licence, which forbids novice drivers from interacting with an electronic device while behind the wheel, even if it’s in hands-free mode. (Drivers holding a full licence, known as Class 5, can use hands-free mode as long as the device is mounted.)

According to documents obtained by CBC News, the police officer confirmed that Sangret wasn’t holding, touching, or using the device, and even went so far as to admit that the device’s screen remained black during the entire roadside stop.

Sangret first appealed the ticket in provincial court, but was unsuccessful. This resulted in a guilty finding. According to the ruling, “driving with a device in plain sight constituted use of that device.”

But Sangret went to the Supreme Court of B.C. to try and appeal the ticket again — and won.

Supreme Court Justice Watchuk said that while “a device in plain view is more likely to tempt a driver to distraction than one that has been safely stowed away in a pocket or a glove compartment,” it’s not actually illegal to have the device in sight while driving.

What constitutes distracted driving remains a grey area for many Canadian drivers.

According to Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation, you can be convicted of distracted driving if you’re using an electronic communication device to text or call while driving (911 being the only exception); if you’re using a handheld entertainment device, like a tablet or portable gaming console; if you’re watching a video on an electronic device while driving, and if you program your GPS device using anything but voice commands.

The GPS stipulation remains especially hairy for rideshare drivers, like those working for Uber or Lyft, who rely on GPS to pick up and drop off fares. They can program their GPS while they’re parked, but it’s illegal for them to program it while they’re driving (even if stopped at a red light), though it’s not at all uncommon to see this rule violated.

Sangret’s situation also highlights how police actually prove that you’re driving distracted. In Ontario, they often just rely on their own visual observations, though sometimes cameras can be used to capture photographic evidence. Still, if the driver appeals the ticket in court, like Sangret did, it’s often just their word against the police officer’s word.

In her ruling, Justice Watchuk said the word “use” needs to be clarified in the context of distracted driving, and should be defined as:

  • Holding the device in a position in which it may be used
  • Operating one or more of the device’s functions
  • Communicating orally through the device with another person or another device
  • Watching the screen of an electronic device

While the fines and penalties for distracted driving vary from province to province, one thing is clear: auto insurance companies are taking this traffic offence seriously. In a report released on Monday, we found that the lowest quote someone could get for auto insurance on our site rose between 4% and 24% once a distracted driving conviction was introduced.