Conversation is a distraction but not an impairment, court rules

Published: July 5, 2018

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Distracted driving is among the biggest problems facing Canadian road authorities and auto insurance companies. In most provinces it has surpassed impaired driving as the leading factor in road fatalities. However, are the boundaries of distraction being stretched too far, or do we need to broaden our assessment of what makes people lose concentration?

Even engaging in heated conversation with a passenger could be a form of distraction. However, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that while a conversation may be deemed a distraction, it is not fair to call it an impairment.

The ruling comes from a case stretching back to May 2013. A collision involving a SUV ramming into a restaurant in Edmonton resulted in the death of a toddler. Richard Suter was driving the car and was involved in an argument with his wife. Instead of putting his foot on the brake, he accidently put it on the gas when driving into a parking spot.

Geo Mounsef, a two-and-a-half-year-old toddler was in the restaurant with his family when the vehicle entered and struck him. He died later from injuries caused by being pinned against a wall.

In the case that followed, Suter pleaded guilty to refusing to provide a breath sample after a motor vehicle accident causing death. Judges have been split as to how much time in jail Suter should receive as the case has been passed through levels of the legal system.

During the debate about sentencing, some argued Suter was “impaired by distraction”. This basically suggested the driver was distracted enough through emotion to be on a level with someone impaired through alcohol.

In 2016, the Court of Appeal ruled in 2016 that the first lower court ruling should have considered the driver’s decision to keep driving during the argument as a reason for a longer jail term. As a result of this second ruling, Suter’s sentence was extended from four months to 26 months. However, the latest Supreme Court of Canada decision means Suter has had his sentence reduced to 18 months.