Toronto police are watching, from special elevated vans, streetcars, and their bikes, waiting for you to pick up your phone while driving.
That’s the message they want motorists to get during a week-long distracted-driving blitz aimed at getting people to put down their devices and focus on the road.
The Star went on a ride along Monday to get a first-hand look at the hunt for distracted drivers, hopping into a white 10-seater van that lets cops see into passing cars. Traffic Services is borrowing two from other areas of the police service, as well as an unmarked pick-up truck.
Drivers have gotten more savvy about flouting the law, says Sgt Brett Moore, as a fellow officer steers the van along Lakeshore Boulevard.
“Folks inherently know that distracted driving is wrong, and in order not to be so blatant to have (their phone) up to their ear they’re dropping it down to their lap,” he says.
“These lap-lookers, they’re not kidding anybody.”
The new zero-tolerance campaign follows the province’s stricter penalties for distracted driving, which came into effect Jan 1. It’s now a minimum $615 fine, three-day license suspension and three demerit points, upon conviction, for a first offence. The fines increase to a maximum of $2,000 and $3,000 for second and third convictions respectively.
Upon a third offence, novice drivers lose their licenses entirely and have to start at the bottom of the graduated licensing system.
On Wednesday, officers will be watching from streetcars, calling on radios to officers trailing them in police vehicles who can intercept people spotted using their phones. Cops in regular cars, on foot and on bikes will also be looking out.
The transit technique is borrowed from officers in Waterloo.
“I call it R And D: Rip off and duplicate. We’re not too proud to rip off good ideas and give full credit,” says Moore with a laugh.
Though distracted driving laws have been on the books for almost a decade, motorists keep doing it.
“We’re creatures of habit,” Moore says. “It’s not getting better.”
Provincial data on 2013 collisions show one person is injured in a distracted driving collision every half hour, and a driver using their phone is four times more likely to crash than a driver who’s not.
Sgt Alex Crews, also with Traffic Services, says he usually stops an offender “within 15 minutes,” after he starts looking for them. He caught a driver Monday in a Range Rover who was talking on a Bluetooth but also scrolling through texts on his phone at the same time.
It’s okay to talk on a hands-free device like a Bluetooth, and have a phone or GPS that’s securely mounted, as long as you’re not touching it, aside from to start or end a hands-free call.
The new harsher penalties apply just to devices, but there are other ways to be distracted, from applying makeup to eating, adds Crews.
“Let’s say you’re driving along and you have a sandwich and you take a bite, no issues. It’s when you’ve got the triple cheeseburger and you’re dripping mayo and ketchup and mustard into your lap and you’re wiping it down and oh my goodness, you rear-end somebody,” he says.
That would be considered careless driving.
At one point the van passes a man glancing down near St Lawrence Market. But officers need to see someone using their phone to make the charge, Moore says.
Toronto police investigated 10,000 instances of possible distracted driving in 2018 — a rate of about 27 a day.
Several tickets were issued Monday morning.
Almost all of those fined cried — something Moore has little patience for.
“It’s that instant remorse, too little too late,” he says.
“There should be no crying in distracted driving.”
Instead of tears after the fact, Moore wants to see people “make a change” now, by investing in a device to properly secure their phones.
“It’s just a matter of time,” he says. “The more times that you drive distracted, use your device, text, phone whatever … one day your number will come up and you’re going to cause a collision.”
May Warren is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11