Distracted Driving 

Cell Phones and Texting

Distracted driving continues to be a major issue in the Northwest Territories (NWT) and across Canada.

Since January, 2012, the use of hand-held electronic devices while driving is against the law in the NWT.  A restricted electronic device is defined as a portable electronic device including a cellular telephone, device for sending and receiving data, device for playing audio or video recordings, and handheld global positioning system receiver. Cell phones and laptops are examples of commonly used restricted electronic devices. 

If you are currently caught using a restricted electronic device while driving you could be given a $322 fine and three demerit points.

Amendments to the NWT Motor Vehicles Act mean tougher distracted driving laws will be coming into effect on May 1, 2016.   These new penalties include:

  • Administrative driver’s licence suspensions for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th distracted driving offences in a two year period; and
  • A $644 fine and three demerit points for distracted driving in school and construction zones.

For the administrative driver’s licence suspensions, if you are caught twice in a two year period for driving while using a restricted electronic device you will face a 24 hour driver’s licence suspension. If you are caught a third time you will face a 7-day driver’s licence suspension and if you are caught a fourth time you will face a 30 day driver’s licence suspension.   Please note, distracted driving suspensions are in addition to any monetary penalties.

What it means to actually “use” a restricted electronic device is also being clarified.  Using a restricted electronic device will now include such things as touching, operating, or holding the device while driving.

Driver safety on NWT highways is a priority for the Department of Transportation.  Leave your cell phone and other electronic devices along while driving.


Pull over to a safe location before using or answering the phone.  Even hands-free cell phones require some of your attention, which should be entirely focused on the road ahead and the drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians behind, beside, and ahead of you.
Text messaging while driving is just plain dumb. Some people think they can multitask – driving a vehicle through traffic while sending text messages to their friends. Text messaging requires as much attention as driving, even if it’s just for seconds at a time. At 45 feet per second, you can travel a long way into danger while “quickly” reviewing your latest text message. It's one of the stupidest things you can do while driving.
Insist on your right to be safe as a passenger.  No one has the right to put you at risk. Say no to any distracted behaviour by your driver that draws attention away from the road.
Don't be a distraction. If you want to be safe as a passenger, avoid distracting your driver. Don't get into arguments, keep your voice level (even when you see a potential collision ahead), avoid loud noises, and don't allow children to be a distraction.
Eat at home or at your destination.  Half of all drivers operate vehicles while eating or drinking a beverage. We get it. It’s a busy world out there. But think about it for half a second: at any time on NWT roads, you may need to respond suddenly to steer out of danger, which can't happen if your hands are occupied with a piping hot double double.
Avoid loud music on your radio or the use of headphones.   Driving requires paying full attention to your surroundings. If you can't hear a siren or a warning horn, you are placing yourself and others at risk.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What is distracted driving? 
Answer: Distracted driving occurs when a driver’s attention is diverted from driving. Such diversions reduce a driver’s awareness, decision-making ability, and driving performance and increase the risk of driver error. Distracted driving is a major and increasing contributor to road collisions. Driving requires your full attention 
Question: What is the purpose of distracted-driving legislation? 
Answer: Distracted-driving legislation targets driver inattention by making it illegal to use  electronic devices while driving. Changes to the Motor Vehicles Act and regulations have been made to restrict the use of hand-held electronic devices. 
Question: What is a restricted electronic device?
Answer: In the NWT, a restricted electronic device includes any portable electronic device. Use while driving is prohibited if the device is at any time held in the driver’s hand. Examples include 1) hand-held cell phones, 2) any device for sending and receiving data, 3) any hand-held device for playing audio or video recordings, 4) laptops or devices that capture images, 5) portable two-way radios (walkie-talkies), 6) electronic games, and 7) hand-held GPS system receivers. 
Question: So, is it against the law to use my cell phone while I’m driving? 
Answer:  Yes. A cell phone is a restricted electronic device. However, such a device can be used if it has been modified or installed to be used in a hands-free mode, which means that the driver is not holding or physically entering data (phone number, etc.) into the device while operating the vehicle. 
Question: What about other hands-free devices? 
Answer: Any restricted electronic device may be used by a driver while operating a vehicle if it is being consistently used in a hands-free manner. 
Question: Does this mean I can’t dial the phone while I’m driving, even if I’m wearing a Bluetooth or similar device? 
Answer: Yes, it is illegal to dial while driving, even on a Bluetooth-enabled device. The Act says a hands-free device may be used as long as it’s used in a hands-free manner – dialing a number on a cell phone, programming a music player, or entering a new GPS address while driving all require the handling of the device and are therefore illegal.
Question:When did the legislation come into force?
Answer: January 1, 2012. It is now in force.
Question: What measures has the Department of Transportation taken to ensure that NWT residents are aware of the legislation?

Answer: The Department, through the Drive Alive program, has raised awareness about distracted driving over a number of years. Advertisements, public service announcements, brochures, and Internet content have been delivered to all NWT residents to inform them about the legislation and its requirements. The Department also worked with community safety partners SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Top of the World Travel to promote driving safety to young audiences.

Question: Why is there a territory-wide ban when some Northwest Territories communities don’t have cell phone service?

Answer:  The Department serves the entire Northwest Territories and addresses safety issues affecting all residents. The new law applies to all hand-held electronic devices, not just cell phones. This includes MP3 players, tablets, e-readers, and GPS systems, which are available to all residents.
Question: Are novice drivers held to different standards than experienced drivers under the Distracted Driving legislation?
Answer: No. Exactly the same standards are applied to novice and experienced drivers alike.(A novice driver is a learning driver who is gradually accorded privileges by demonstrating proficiency behind the wheel.
Question:  Why does the distracted driving legislation ban all electronic devices while driving? Why are other distractions such as eating, personal grooming, or unsecured pets not addressed in the legislation?
Answer: Operating a vehicle in an unsafe manner can result in a careless driving charge under section 154 of the Motor Vehicles Act. This could, for example, apply to a driver who allows a pet or personal grooming to interfere with his or her driving.
Question:  Are professional drivers permitted to use cell phones while driving?
Answer: No. Professional drivers – such as transport-truck drivers, cab drivers and school-bus drivers – are held to the same standards as are regular drivers – handheld cell phones and other electronic devices are banned while driving.
Question: What about the rules regarding two-way radios?

Answer: VHF or Citizen Band (CB) radios (commonly known as two-way radios or walkie-talkies) that are mounted to the vehicle can be used while driving on any road. You may use a hand-held mike on a radio mounted to the vehicle. If the radio is not mounted to the vehicle, it is considered a portable radio. Portable radios are restricted similarly to cell phones and are illegal to use while driving. (Note that these devices may be legally used in a hands-free mode, if available.) An important exception is that portable, handheld two-way radios may be legally used while driving on winter roads as a safety measure to ensure drivers can communicate their position and road and weather conditions with other winter road users.

Question: Can I watch a movie while I’m driving?

Answer: No. The distracted driving legislation and regulations specifically prohibit this practice.
Question: Can I listen to music on my portable music player or use my portable GPS navigation system?
Answer: If the device is not affixed to the vehicle, the device must be programmed in advance. If changes to the information are required, you must be legally and safely parked. You may not manually type or input information on a hand-held device anytime the vehicle is in traffic, including when the vehicle is stopped at an intersection.
Question:  What are the rules for driving on winter roads?
Answer: The use of portable (hand-held) two-way radios is permitted while driving on winter roads. However, a winter-road driver may not use a hand-held cell phone or any other restricted electronic device.
Question:  What are the rules for drivers and operators in construction zones?
Answer: Drivers or operators who are maintaining or constructing a road are exempt from all parts of the distracted-driving legislation while at the site of the work.
Question:  What are the rules for drivers of escort vehicles – i.e., a vehicle that is escorting an over-dimension vehicle on one of our roads?
Answer: Radio contact must be maintained between an escort vehicle and the vehicle under escort. Drivers may only use radios mounted on the vehicle or other hands-free devices for this purpose.
Question: Why is it illegal to use a restricted electronic device while driving?
Answer: Distracted driving is a form of impaired driving.  According to the Canadian Automobile Association, drivers who are text messaging are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash or near crash event compared with non-distracted drivers.  Driver distraction is a factor in about 4 million motor vehicle crashes in North America each year and distracted drivers are three times more likely to be in a crash than attentive drivers.
Question: As long as I am not making phone calls or texting, am I allowed to hold my phone and have it out while driving?
Answer: No, you may not. Prior to May 1st, it is difficult to prove a driver is using their phone, even if they are holding it in a position in which it is obvious that it is being used.  The MVA will clarify what it means to “use” a restricted electronic device such as a cellphone. You may be fined for operating, holding or even touching the device. 
Question:  Why is the Department implementing drivers licence suspensions for distracted driving?
Answer:  Licence suspensions are required to help address the incidence of distracted driving in the NWT.  Distracted driving legislation came into force in the NWT in January 2012. As of May 1st, approximately 1200 drivers have been convicted of distracted driving, and the number of convictions continues to rise. Licence suspensions will be an effective way of reducing this behaviour. The Department will be suspending the driver’s licences of individuals caught driving while using a restricted electronic device, after the first offense.  Drivers may receive driver’s licence suspensions lasting 24 hours, 7 days and 30 days for their 2nd, 3rd, and 4th distracted driving offences respectively in a two-year period. Every time an individual is convicted of an offence under section 155.1(2) of the MVA, they may receive a $322 penalty. If the offence occurs in a construction or school zone, a $644 penalty may apply. These monetary penalties are in addition to any driver’s licence suspension the driver may receive. To establish whether the offence is a first, second, third or subsequent offence, the two-year period immediately before the most recent contravention would be considered.
Question: Why is the fine so much higher in school zones and construction zones? 
Answer:  School zones and construction zones are high foot traffic areas, where children and workers are usually present.  As such, a separate offence has been established for using a restricted electronic device while driving in either of these zones. The point of these fines is to keep people safe. Prior to May 1st, an individual who offends section 155.1(2) of the MVA in respect of using a restricted electronic device is subject to a fine of $322 as specified in the Summary Conviction Procedures Regulations. Distracted driving in school and construction zones will now come with a penalty of $644, which is double the current distracted driving penalty.