It’s becoming increasingly clear that the process for revoking or suspending driver’s licenses in B.C. requires attention. Over the last 15 months, one embarrassment after another has driven this need home.
In November 2011, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that a central component of the province’s campaign against drunk drivers was unconstitutional. In effect, motorists were being convicted at the roadside without right of appeal. The government was forced to introduce proper avenues for contesting some of these rulings.
Then last June, the attorney general yielded to public pressure and moderated the province’s DriveABLE program. The program uses an interactive computer screen to assess the driving ability of older motorists.
But one study showed that the software has a history of over-diagnosing cognitive failings. In B.C., only 15 per cent of drivers passed the test outright.
The government backed down in the face of these criticisms and offered a traditional on-road assessment to anyone who failed.
Most recently, the drunk-driving crackdown was back in the news. More than a thousand motorists convicted under the program have won a partial reprieve.
According to law, drivers who commit an impaired driving offence can be forced to attend remedial classes and install ignition locks on their vehicles.
But supposedly these sanctions, which cost $2,600, are only to be applied if the motorist has an unsatisfactory driving record. In practice, it appears the penalties may have been imposed regardless of driving history.
Viewed broadly, these controversies have two things in common. They display an element of zeal that exceeds good judgment.
The government was advised well in advance about the constitutional risks and chose to ignore the warnings. And the way senior citizens have been treated was shoddy at best.
Second, these controversies all originated in an agency called the Office of the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles. This agency is the ruling authority that governs drivers. It helped draft the drunk driving legislation, and plays a role in enforcement. It also runs the DriveABLE program.
Between suspensions issued by a police officer, and those ordered by the Superintendent after review, 70,000 licenses are yanked each year and fines that can reach several thousand dollars are levied. Those are not small numbers. Penalties like these can match the sentences handed down in criminal courts. Yet there are few of the checks and balances we expect in a court of law.
To start with, the agency is not an arm’s-length tribunal. It is a branch of the government bureaucracy, which means it is neither independent or impartial.
And although an appeal process exists, its value is questionable. Under the new drunk-driving laws, vehicles can be impounded immediately if motorists fail a breathalyzer test. Driver’s licences can also be suspended at the roadside.
Yes, those decisions are reviewable. But even if the motorist wins, the damage is already done.
The impound fee may be returned, but there is no recompense for the loss of the vehicle or licence. There is an important point of principle here: Instant justice is often impossible to remedy when it errs.
The agency justifies these measures by insisting that driving is a privilege, not a right. Quite true.
Yet for many, driving is no less important than other necessities of life. There are many circumstances where loss of a licence can have serious consequences.
The government was obliged to crack down on drunk driving. And no doubt there are some elderly motorists who don’t belong on the road.
But if that’s where we are headed, the adjudicative process also needs fixing. With tougher penalties should come stronger protections against heavy-handedness or bureaucratic indifference.
The best solution would be to transform the superintendent’s office into a properly constituted, independent tribunal. That would cost money, but perhaps no more than an endless series of lawsuits.
© Copyright 2013