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Distracted driving criminal?

Ontario's distracted driving fines have increased by more than $100, a decision a recent poll suggests most Canadians support.

Eight out of 10 people surveyed said they believed that texting and driving should be a criminal offence, according to a poll conducted by insurance company Kanetix.ca and polling firm Leger Marketing between Feb. 28 and March 3.

Including surcharges, the fine for using a cellphone or other handheld devices behind the wheel rose from $155 to $280 on Tuesday.

This is the first time the fine has increased since the ban on handheld communication and entertainment devices was instated in October 2009.

The 1,502 Canadians surveyed had differing ideas on what kinds of distractions other than texting should be considered criminal, but 58 per cent thought any form of distracted driving should be illegal.

"Distracted driving is any action that a driver engages in that takes their focus away from the safe operation of a motor vehicle," Toronto police said in a press release. "Distracted drivers are a safety risk to themselves and other road-users."

Currently there are no demerit points associated with distracted driving, and police do not confiscate handheld devices. However, if a driver endangers others because of distraction, he or she may be given demerit points as part of a "careless driving" or "dangerous driving" offence.

On Monday, the province proposed even tougher penalties to punish drivers who are caught using handheld devices.

The new legislation would give a convicted driver three demerit points and increase the fines to range from $300 to $1,000.

In the province of Ontario, a driver will be sent a warning letter if they have two to eight demerit points. When the total demerit points hit nine to 14, the driver risks a suspended licence. If a driver has 15 or more points, his or her licence will be suspended for 30 days.

The Ministry of Transportation website says that when drivers take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds, their risk of being in a crash doubles. A driver using a cellphone is four times more likely to be in a crash than a focused driver.

The distracted driving law makes it illegal for motorists to hold a device while driving, but they can use the device while legally parked or calling 911 in an emergency.

Drivers are also prohibited from viewing display screens, such as laptops or DVD players, while driving.

Hands-free devices are still permitted. Drivers may make hands-free calls, using an earpiece, headset, Bluetooth device or the vehicle's sound system.

Use of global positioning systems (GPS) is permitted, provided the device is secured to a dashboard or windshield.

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