The B.C. government is considering impounding the vehicles of drivers caught texting or talking on cellphones while behind the wheel, says Justice Minister Suzanne Anton.
The government is also mulling stiffer fines and licence suspensions for distracted drivers, similar to the immediate roadside prohibitions given to imipaired drivers, she said.
Anton made the comments as she updated reporters on the results of a public discussion of the issue at gov.bc.ca/distracteddriving. The website has received nearly 12,000 visits in two weeks, rivalling public interest in the ministry’s consultation on provincial liquor laws, she said. There have been more than 36,000 responses to nine questions.
“One thing is crystal clear in the consultation so far: People think that the fines are too low,” Anton said. “This isn’t unexpected because our fines are the second lowest in Canada, and the point of this consultation is to help assess exactly what level would change behaviour.”
There’s been little agreement on fine amounts to date, with suggestions ranging from $200 to more than $750. Drivers currently face a $167 fine and three demerit points for using a hand-held device while driving.
By contrast, Ontario has passed legislation to increase the maximum penalty for distracted driving to $1,000, while Manitoba increased the number of demerit points for the offence to five from two, effective Wednesday.
Karen Bowman, who founded the distracted driving prevention program Drop It and Drive, said B.C. is overdue for tougher penalties.
“The current fine in B.C., especially for business professionals, is just the cost of doing business,” she said. “It’s not enough of a deterrent to change the behaviour and to override the perceived need to be productive while on the go.”
Bowman said the government needs to do something to get people’s attention, “because there’s not the same social stigma attached to distracted driving as there is to drunk driving.”
Anton said impounding vehicles of distracted drivers may be one way to make sure that people get the message. People penalized for excessive speeding or drinking and driving already can have their vehicles impounded anywhere from three to 60 days.
“I can tell you this is something we’re seriously looking at for distracted driving,” Anton said. “The question is: At what point should a vehicle be impounded? On a first offence or only on subsequent offences? And what would be the right length of impoundments?”
People can weigh in on the issue until July 16.
The Insurance Corporation of B.C. reports that a quarter of all car-crash fatalities in B.C. from 2009 to 2013 — an average of 88 deaths a year — were related to distracted driving.
An average of 12 people are killed on Vancouver Island every year in distracted driving-related crashes, ICBC figures show.
The B.C. government began cracking down on distracted driving last October by adding three demerit points to the $167 fine. Drivers with a high number of demerit points pay more for insurance.