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When can I legally pull over to answer a text or phone call?

Posted by Globe and Mail

For Ontario's distracted driving law, what exactly constitutes legal parking? Does the engine have to be turned off? Do the keys have to be removed from the ignition? When can you legally use your phone? -- Philip, ON

Put simply, you can't touch a hand-held phone when you're driving unless you're pushing the hands-free button or calling 911, says Ontario's MTO.

"Ontario’s law makes it illegal for drivers to talk, text, type, dial or email using hand-held cell phones and other hand-held communications and entertainment devices," the MTO says in an email statement. "The law also prohibits drivers from viewing display screens while driving, such as laptops or DVD players, that are unrelated to the driving task."

On March 18, 2014 the fine for breaking that law will rise from $155 to $280.

The MTO says drivers can touch a device to turn on or off the hands-free function, but otherwise they can't physically touch the device while driving. That includes giving instructions to the GPS and playing MP3s/

If you're parked or safely pulled over and not impeding traffic, then you're not driving. You can use the device from behind the wheel without getting charged.

There is a hitch. You have to follow other traffic laws. If it says No Parking, you can't park there. You have to be lawfully, or legally, parked. That means you can only park where parking is allowed. If there's a No Parking sign, then it's not lawful parking.

"You have to be safely in park to use a device, but the engine doesn't have to be off and the keys don't have to be out of the ignition," says Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Pierre Chamberland.

If you're pulling over, you can't pull over where it's not allowed. For example, pulling over is banned on 400-series roads unless it's an emergency.

"If the situation is not an emergency, drivers are advised to exit the freeway at an interchange or pull into the nearest service centre," the MTO says.

If you're in traffic but not moving, like at a stop light or in traffic jam, it's illegal to use your device, even if you put your vehicle in park.

"If you're stopped in traffic, you're still driving – you're just not moving," says Chamberland. "You still have to pay attention to the lights and to other vehicles."

Deadly consequences

This week, an OPP blitz is targeting Ontario drivers who won't ditch their devices on the road.

"People are not abiding by this law and I don't know why," says Chamberland. "They're raising the fines and there's still debate in the government about adding demerits – we're hoping that will make a difference."

In 2013, distracted driving was the number one cause of death on roadways: 78 people were killed in collisions involving distracted driving, the OPP says.

That's compared to 57 impaired-driving deaths and 44 speed-related deaths. Since 2010, distracted driving has killed 325 people in Ontario.

Hands-free allowed, but is it safe?

Ontario's distracted driving law allows hands-free calling. But a 2013 study by the University of Utah and the American Automobile Association showed talking on a hands-free phone was nearly as distracting to drivers as talking on a hand-held phone, says the Canadian Automobile Association.

"We are not the only ones who have conducted this type of research," says CAA spokesman Kristine D'Arbelles in an email. "More and more studies show that cognitive distraction (from) hands-free devices is as dangerous as physical distraction."