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A Victoria police officer prepares to test a driver’s blood-alcohol level during a check stop on Yates Street in downtown Victoria in November 2011. (Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail)
A Victoria police officer prepares to test a driver’s blood-alcohol level during a check stop on Yates Street in downtown Victoria in November 2011. (Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail)

Tougher drunk-driving laws have saved 190 lives, B.C. says Add to ...

Attorney-General Suzanne Anton says the Liberal government believes British Columbia’s controversial impaired driving law introduced more than three years ago has saved 190 lives.

Anton said Monday that drinking and driving deaths have declined 52 per cent since September, 2010, when police officers were given powers to issue immediate roadside suspensions for suspected impaired drivers.

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Government statistics indicate that since the law was introduced, impaired driving deaths have decreased to an average of 54 a year from a previous five-year average of 112 deaths annually.

“Yes, it’s a direct relationship,” Anton said of the decline.

“It was our goal when the program came in to reduce deaths by impaired drivers by 35 per cent.

“It’s, in fact, reduced deaths by 52 per cent. That’s 190 people who are home with their families instead of living with the tragedy of having a death in the family through a drinking driver.”

The government was forced to amend the law two years ago, after a B.C. Supreme Court judge struck down portions of the statute as unconstitutional. The amendment allows drivers an avenue to appeal roadside prohibitions.

Anton acknowledged the law is facing another constitutional challenge, but she said government has no plans to alter the overall thrust of the legislation, introduced to honour four-year-old Alexa Middelaer, who was killed by a drunk driver in 2008.

“Generally, the program is robust,” said Anton. “If it’s necessary to make changes, we will make those changes. But we really stand by the program because, as a government, we very strongly believe this is a successful program. It saves lives.”

Under the law, drivers who fail or refuse a roadside screening test can be fined, have their licence suspended, or their vehicle seized.

Penalties can also include driving prohibitions for up to 90 days for a fail or refusing to provide a breath sample; fines of up to $500 for a 90-day prohibition; paying for and attending a remedial driving program; impoundment of the vehicle; owing and storage costs and a fee to have the driver’s license reinstated; and paying for and installing the ignition-interlock program.

Last year, the Justice Ministry announced that motorists penalized during the period where the law was found to be unconstitutional were in line for a partial refund.

Up to 1,137 motorists who were supposed to attend and pay for driver education programs and install ignition-lock systems in their vehicles after failing roadside impaired driving tests no longer need to take those actions. Another 400 drivers were in line for refunds of about $2,600.

But the ministry said the motorists’ drunk-driving convictions still stand.

The law faces ongoing court challenges on behalf of about a dozen people who say the law puts too much power in the hands of police at the roadside with inadequate appeal provisions for motorists.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association is an intervenor in a case between the motorists and B.C.’s Superintendent of Motor Vehicles. The civil liberties association could not be reached for immediate comment Monday.

In a statement last April, the association said, “the impact of the law has true penal consequences for drivers and effectively creates a new provincial ‘crime’ of drinking and driving.”

“It does so without any of the protections that apply in the criminal law and that are guaranteed by the charter, such as the presumption of innocence,” said the statement.

“On the contrary, the automatic roadside prohibition presumes guilt.”

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