Does simply plugging in a cellphone while driving amount to using it, the same way texting, calling or browsing the web does under Quebec’s distracted driving laws?
A recent Quebec court ruling has concluded it should not, adding to the growing list of decisions that interpret the province’s law on the use of portable devices while driving.
For lawyer Éric Lamontagne, who specializes in contesting driving infractions, the decision addresses a question many people still struggle with: Exactly what can you do with a cellphone while behind the wheel?
“It’s certainly one of the (laws) that people have the hardest time understanding how it applies,” Lamontagne said in an interview. “And that’s why decisions like these are important — because they provide a framework for what we can and cannot do” while driving.
In the case in question, police officers in the municipality of La Sarre, in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, pulled over a driver while he was waiting at a red light.
Police argued they witnessed the man manipulating his phone while the screen was off. But in a decision rendered in late June, justice of the peace Claude Boulianne retained the driver’s explanation that he was plugging his phone into his car’s USB port, without ever looking at it.
The man was ticketed under a provision of Quebec’s Highway Safety Code that stipulates drivers are prohibited from “using” a cellphone while driving. The infraction carries a penalty of five demerit points and a fine between $300 and $600.
It’s the interpretation of what constitutes “using” a cellphone under the law that Boulianne wrestled with in his 31-page ruling — a question, he noted, that has been explored in several decisions since Quebec amended the law in 2018.
Boulianne’s decision cites previous rulings as examples, noting how the interpretation of what counts as using a cellphone has kept expanding in the years since.
In 2019, for instance, a judge ruled that a Rimouski woman checking if her phone was charging did count as using it. The next year, on the other hand, a judge in St-Jérôme found a person picking their phone up from the floor and putting it away did not count.
Last year, a judge ruled a Quebec City man who was holding his phone while it was off was not breaking the law. Then, a week later, a Montreal municipal court judge acquitted a man caught in the act of unplugging his phone and placing it in his pocket.
“The jurisprudence has generally established very well that for a driver to consult the screen of their phone or a portable device constitutes (using it),” Boulianne wrote. “Thus, looking at the time, the weather, a message, the battery level or any other information is unanimously prohibited.”
However, Boulianne added, there remains a “difference of opinion” when interpreting connecting or disconnecting a phone.
Boulianne referenced a recent decision from St-Jérôme in which a judge ruled plugging one’s phone in to charge it does constitute using it. In that case, the judge equated it to plugging in an electric clothes iron: once it’s plugged in, it’s in use.
But Boulianne ultimately ruled differently, deciding to acquit the driver in La Sarre.
Though he agreed connecting a phone could cause someone to be momentarily distracted, he noted the law aims to restrict the typical way people use cellphones, not all forms of distracted driving.
“With respect,” Boulianne added, “the job of the courts is to interpret the legislation, not to seek to distort the legislative intent to make it more coercive.”
For Lamontagne, who wasn’t involved in the case, the decision was the right call and shows the need for the courts to keep clarifying the parameters around cellphone use while driving.
Lamontagne pointed to a recent case in which a woman used her phone to pay at a Tim Hortons drive-thru. A police officer happened to pull into the drive-thru simultaneously, Lamontagne said, and ticketed the woman for using her phone afterward.
If that’s not confusing, he added, then he doesn’t know what is.
“So I do believe that through judgments like (Boulianne’s),” Lamontagne said, “we need to specify where the ‘using’ infraction begins, and where it ends.”
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