Stiffer fines, impoundments eyed for distracted drivers

Province opens online consultation on how far to go to deter drivers from texting and using cellphones behind the wheel

The province is considering stiffer fines and possibly vehicle impoundments or prohibitions to get distracted drivers to put down their cellphones and devices.

Motorists caught using a handheld device face $167 fines and – since last fall – three driver penalty points.

“We took a first step and increased the penalties last fall and now we’re looking at possible changes to the legislation, including more severe penalties,” Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said.

A four-week online consultation period is open until July 16 to gather public opinion on whether tougher measures are needed. Comments are being collected at engage.gov.bc.ca/distracteddriving.

Besides potential vehicle impoundments or driver prohibitions, the site asks if texting drivers should be punished more severely, and possibly new drivers and repeat offenders as well.

Five years after distracted driving fines were introduced in B.C., many drivers continue to ignore the law.

Police issued 55,100 tickets last year to drivers caught using an electronic device behind the wheel – an increase from 53,000 in 2013.

ICBC estimates 9,500 drivers in B.C. are using a hand-held device at any given time and 40 per cent are texting or emailing as they drive.

The B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police supports escalating fines or sanctions, particularly for multiple repeat offenders, said Transit Police Chief Neil Dubord who chairs the chiefs’ traffic committee.

But he said the widespread disregard for the cellphone law makes it difficult to see how officers could impound vehicles – at least on a first offence – without being accused of selective, unfair enforcement.

“The impoundment of vehicles is difficult because of the large numbers,” said Dubord, who is taking over as chief of Delta Police later this month. “When people are speeding at double the limit speed limit a threshold is broken which can then lead to the impounding of the vehicle.”

He said he believes prohibitions should be considered, but only for the worst repeat offenders.

The chiefs’ association doesn’t have a formal position on prohibitions, nor has it adopted the stance that texting is worse than handheld phone calls.

According to research cited by the province, texting or using a smartphone while driving is more distracting than talking on one, resulting in up to 23 times higher crash risk for drivers who text.

Speed and distraction are now the top two factors contributing to crash deaths, ahead of third-ranked alcohol.

B.C.’s distracted driving fines are the second-lowest in Canada. Nova Scotia has the highest, climbing from $234 to $579 on the third offence, and Ontario is about to double its maximum fine from $500 to $1,000.

Saskatchewan impounds the vehicle for seven days if the driver has had two or more distracted driving tickets within the last year.

Dubord said police are also concerned about the increasing use of in-dash video screens that allow the passenger, and often also the driver, to watch movies.

He said officers are also wary of other new and distracting technology, from Google Glass to the Apple Watch.

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