SPECIAL REPORT: Ont dials 118; but push-to-talk still unclear

QUEEN’S PARK — Dialing while driving will be a punishable offence in Ontario probably as early as this fall, but it seems truckers will catch some breaks.

The Ontario legislature rubberstamped Bill 118 to ban hand-held phones or entertainment devices while operating a vehicle, leaving truckers wondering how they’ll communicate for work purposes from inside the cab.

Hands-free devices that use Bluetooth and properly mounted GPS devices will be allowed, confirmed the Ministry of Transportation. So are mp3 players or ipods, provided they are plugged into the stereo system.

If caught, drivers won’t lose any demerit points, but can face a fine of up to $500.

Police, fire and emergency personnel are naturally exempt from the law and "additional exemptions for certain communications devices used to dispatch, track and monitor commercial drivers," are also being considered. But the message possibly excusing the use of push-to-talk (PTT) devices in the commercial sector is somewhat vague.

As Today’s Trucking was the first to report last year, Ontario’s written proposal and Quebec’s ban include the restriction of PTT devices, which are extremely popular with drivers in the short-haul and construction sectors.

The Ontario Trucking Association has been working hard to ensure the devices would be exempt; and a few weeks ago revealed that officials gave verbal confirmation that they likely would be.

Spot the difference: law enforcement may
have a difficult time differentiating between
PTT devices and regular cell phones.

However, in comments to Canadian Press, Transport Minister Jim Bradley oddly stated that he would be "extremely reluctant … to grant any (further) exemptions unless a very compelling case could be made."

The statement doesn’t seem to worry the OTA’s Doug Switzer, who is "fairly confident" that PTT devices will be exempt from the law — at least for commercial operators.

"I was the one who appeared on behalf of OTA before the standing committee that reviewed the bill," Switzer told todaystrucking.com earlier this morning, “and the subject of exemptions came up and there seemed to be support from all three parties for some accommodation for the commercial sector."

Switzer explains that the bill has sections that allow for exceptions, and the process of filling in those gaps after a bill has been passed is “normally what happens." 

"In fact … the ministry can’t really start drafting regulations until the bill passes.”

While the fine-tuning will occur over the next few months, the biggest hurdle is that, from an enforcement point of view, it could be difficult to ascertain the difference between a PTT device and a standard cell phone. Plus, there’s the public perception issue in that Joe-Honda-Civic may kick up some dust when he discovers that tractor-trailer drivers are able to use hand-held devices and he isn’t.

“I think those are overcomeable issues," Switzer said, pointing out that they have taken the MTO to a trucking company to demonstrate the need of such technology. “We’ve showed them the kind of devices that the trucking companies use; they understand our needs, they understand why push-to-talk is used and how it’s used and the importance of it."

Even though Switzer’s sure that the OTA’s message was well received, he knows that when it comes to government there’s always the chance of a dropped call.

"I’m pretty confident that they’re going to follow through … (but) I’ve been at this long enough to know that these things never happen the way you think it will and promises from politicians are just promises from politicians."  


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