A distracted-driving ticket issued to a Vancouver woman for charging her cellphone in her front-seat cup holder is raising legal questions about the use of electronic devices in cars.
Randi Kramer, 71, was given a $368 distracted-driving ticket in downtown Vancouver even though she told the police officer she was looking straight ahead with both hands on the wheel. This was Kramer’s first ticket in her 50-year history of driving. When Vancouver lawyer Kyla Lee intervened, police cancelled the ticket and apologized.
Victoria lawyer Jerry Steele said Thursday that the distracted driving issue boils down to whether an electronic device is in use. Steele believes the Motor Vehicle Act provisions should be clearer if the government intends to prohibit specific practices around cellphone use.
“There are a lot of grey areas and if you happen to be in one of the grey areas and the police see you, you will probably end up in traffic court or you’ll receive a $368 ticket and four penalty points on your driving record,” said Steele.
On a first infraction, the driver pays an additional $210 ICBC penalty-point premium for a total of $578.
Steele sees similarities between Kramer’s case and the case of Vancouver driver Philip Partridge, who was given a distracted-driving ticket after police saw a cellphone wedged between the folds of his passenger seat.
A traffic court judge convicted Partridge in August 2018. But Partridge appealed and the violation was overturned by the B.C. Supreme Court in March.
The court found that the mere presence of a cellphone within sight of a driver was not enough to secure a conviction.
“That’s why I think they cancelled the woman’s ticket. It was very similar,” Steele said.
The court has also said that charging a phone is not using it.
In the past, police would catch people using their cellphones as they rolled up to traffic lights. But people have become more sneaky, so police are becoming more sneaky, using binoculars and riding buses to peer into cars, said the lawyer.
“I tell people the best thing they can do is install a mount or put the cellphone in the console out of sight. Don’t keep it in plain view because if police see it, they will likely write a ticket,” said Steele.
If someone has their cellphone on the front seat, face up and it rings and they look at it, theoretically that is using the phone, said Steele. Even if a driver hasn’t touched the phone, he or she can still be written up for it.
It’s legal to have a cellphone mounted on the dash. Drivers can answer their phone if they just touch it once, Steele said.
And they can use the GPS if the route is pre-programmed before driving and sound comes through the speakers.
A lot of drivers don’t know that two distracted driving tickets in a 12-month period puts their licence at risk for a three- to six-month suspension, Steele said.
“Two cellphone tickets or two excessive speeding tickets, or one of each in a 12-month period, and you’re at risk for suspension. I get calls from people all the time and they just can’t believe it. They’ve got a letter from the superintendent [of motor vehicles] prohibiting them from driving based on a couple of cellphone tickets.”
Drivers who get two or more distracted driving convictions in a three-year period are charged a risk premium and could pay as much as $2,000 in penalties — an increase of $740 — in addition to their regular vehicle insurance premium.
Many people think it’s illegal to eat or drink while driving, but that’s wrong, Steele said.
“You are allowed to eat and drink as long as you’re paying attention,” he said.
Chatting, eating or drinking, adjusting the radio, the air conditioning or heat can contribute to distracted and inattentive driving but this falls under the category of careless driving or driving without due care or attention under the Motor Vehicle Act.
Drivers can also use one earbud to listen to their phone as long as the phone is either in a bracket affixed to the vehicle or securely attached to his or her person, said Steele. For example, a driver could listen to an iPod if it was in an arm band and worn around his or her arm. Drivers can’t use one earbud and leave their phone lying on the seat, in their lap or in the console, Steele said.