An illustration of distracted driving is seen here in this Postmedia file photo. Distracted driving numbers in Stratford are dropping compared to 2016. (Postmedia Network)

An illustration of distracted driving is seen here in this Postmedia file photo. Distracted driving numbers in Stratford are dropping compared to 2016. (Postmedia Network)

As the province attempts to drop the hammer on distracted driving with tougher penalties, the number of drivers caught in Stratford seems to be dropping.

From January through late September, police have issued 68 tickets for distracted driving throughout the city. In 2016 they handed out 151. Overall the numbers have slipped from an average of about 13 per month to less than eight.

“So the numbers are down,” said Stratford police Insp. Sam Theocharis. “Sixty-eight charges since January is trending lower than other years, which is a good thing.”

But it’s still an ongoing issue, he admitted. Eventually the goal is to have people look at driving with a handheld device in the same light as impaired driving.

“You know it’s socially unacceptable, people still do it thinking that they’re not going to get caught. Same thing with distracted driving, we’re trying to make it socially unacceptable,” Theocharis said, also making the comparison to smoking.

Less than two weeks ago, Ontario announced a plan to crack down on careless and distracted driving by beefing up penalties. The proposed legislation includes higher fines, more demerit points, and potential license suspensions for people caught using cellphones while behind the wheel.

Since Sept. 1, 2015, the fine has been set at $400, plus a $90 victim surcharge and court fee, along with three demerit points. The fine can reach $1,000 through a summons or by fighting a ticket.

When distracted driving rules were first introduced in Ontario in 2009, Stratford police spent the first month pulling phone-holding motorists over and educating them as opposed to issuing tickets.

Eight years later, though, the time for teaching has passed.

“We will charge you if you get stopped, we rarely warn people about distracted driving,” Theocharis said. “Impaired driving is a whole different dynamic where it could cause injury to yourself and others, and distracted driving, in my opinion, is the same. If you take your eyes off the road you could cause an accident, you could kill someone.”

Stratford police don’t usually focus solely on distracted driving during general patrol – they enforce all Highway Traffic Act laws.

“We’re not at the point where – like other cities – where we’re running city vehicles to catch drivers while they’re texting,” he said. “Can we? Certainly. Would we get a whole bunch? I’m sure we would.”

On or off duty, it’s pretty easy to spot them.

“When I’m driving outside of work I see people texting and driving, it’s ridiculous,” he said. “And the scary part is, I’ve seen them on (Highway) 401 head down texting going 110, 115, 120 kilometres an hour. That’s dangerous.”

When spotted by on-duty officers, guilty drivers tend to have a similar reaction: Drop the device on their lap.

“People can say (they’re innocent) all they want, chances are when we come up to the car nine times out of 10 that phone is in their lap because they don’t want to make that movement to move the phone,” Theocharis said. “If you’re not texting and driving, why is your phone on your lap?”

Source: Stratford Beacon Herald