Is that smart phone app legal on the road?

Before you download that app for hands-free emailing and texting on your smart phone, thinking you can get some work done while you commute back and forth from the office, make sure it actually complies with provincial driving laws first.

ComputerWorld Canada asked the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) what drivers should look for in a smart phone app before using it while driving in Ontario.

“If the e-mail app is voice-activated, or requires no more than a single button press to begin, then its use will be legal in Ontario,” said Bob Nichols, senior media liaison officer at the Ontario Ministry of Transportation.

Drivers are allowed to start an app to send or receive e-mails using their voice or a single button press, he said, but any communication function that requires more physical input from the driver would not be allowed under the new law.

“The smart phone or other device must also be secured in or mounted to the vehicle while in use,” said Nichols.

Ontario’s new distracted driver legislation, otherwise known as the cell phone ban, was introduced in October 2009. And it applies to any kind of communication device, not just cell phones, Nichols pointed out.

The law, which prohibits using your hands to make calls, text or e-mail while driving, applies to hand-held wireless communication devices and hand-held electronic entertainment, including GPS devices and audio players. It also prohibits watching displays like laptops or DVD players.

The three-month period following the law’s introduction focused on educating drivers about the new restrictions on hand-held devices, which allowed drivers and the public to become aware and familiar with the new law, he said. Nichols said this approach “contributed to a smoother rollout when regular police ticketing began on February 1.”

“Across the province, 19,362 charges were laid in the first five months of ticketing ending June 30, 2010,” said Nichols. The number includes charges from all police forces in Ontario, he noted.

Drivers aren’t terribly confused about what they can and can’t do with their phones while they are behind the wheel, according to Sergeant Pierre Chamberland, corporate communications at the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). “It hasn’t been an issue,” he said.

“Driving is a skill that needs a lot of attention and when people are paying attention to their cell phone conversations rather than on the road in front of them, they are obviously a hazard for everyone who is sharing that road – whether it be pedestrians or other drivers,” he said. 

The OPP has issued 4,444 tickets to those driving in contravention of the distracted driver legislation from October 2009 to the end of July 2010, said Chamberland. “We have found that the bulk of the public are very supportive of this particular legislation,” he said. 

Nichols said it’s still “too early to draw any definitive conclusions regarding the success of the new law” and the MTO “will continue to monitor and analyze the data and feedback from the public and our road safety partners, as part of an ongoing evaluation process.”

Those breaking the law can receive fines up to $500 and the most frequent users of cell phones while driving are those under 35 years of age, according to the MTO’s Web site.

Provinces with similar driving legislation include British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and Saskatchewan. Alberta and New Brunswick have not yet introduced laws banning hand-held cell phone use.

Next up: Why finding an app that actually complies with driving laws and is suitable for business use isn’t as easy as you think

Follow me on Twitter @jenniferkavur. 

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