Two years ago, four-year-old Alexa Middelaer was killed by an alleged drunk driver as she fed a horse on a road in Delta. Yesterday her mother, Laurel Middelaer, hugged B.C.'s solicitor general and thanked him for a "gutsy" new law to make British Columbia the worst place in the country to get caught driving while impaired.
Solicitor General Mike de Jong said the law introduced yesterday honours the memory of Alexa by aiming to reduce the number of drunk driving fatalities by a third in the next three years.
"We need penalties that are clear, swift and severe," Mr. de Jong said on the steps of the legislature, flanked by a dozen uniformed police officers, top officials from Mothers against Drunk Driving, and Alexa's parents.
The new law, which will take effect this fall, gives police the authority to impose tougher roadside penalties for drivers who refuse a breath sample or are found with a blood alcohol level over the legal limit of 0.08 per cent. Drivers face an immediate, 90-day driving ban and a $500 fine plus their vehicle can be impounded for 30 days. They may also face criminal charges.
The new rules also create a "warning" category for drivers with blood alcohol levels between 0.05 and 0.08 per cent. Penalties include an immediate, three-day driving ban and a $200 fine for a first-time offence.
In both cases, drivers will pay more to restore their driving privileges, up to $3,750 following any roadside suspension.
"We want the safest roads in Canada and now we are leading the way," Ms. Middelaer told reporters. Alexa's father, Michael Middelaer, said yesterday's event was a great day for his family but noted they are still awaiting the trial of the woman charged in his daughter's death, which is set to start May 31.
The couple have lobbied for change since their daughter's death, but Mr. Middelaer couldn't say exactly why the government chose their case to highlight the need for changes. "We may have had a story that was powerful enough. We all want to protect our children," he said.
Last year, Mothers Against Drunk Driving ranked B.C. seventh among the provinces for its mediocre record in combating drunk driving. Yesterday, MADD Canada CEO Andrew Murie applauded the changes.
"B.C. has now set the bar very high," he said. "This allows us to go back and encourage the other provinces to keep up with what British Columbia has done."
Premier Gordon Campbell, who was convicted of drunk driving while on vacation in Maui seven years ago, said he wants B.C. drivers to take a clear message from the new law.
"We're saying clearly to people, there is a very easy way to never run afoul of this law: Don't drink and drive." The premier quit drinking after his conviction but a member of his caucus, MLA Jane Thornthwaite, is now facing drunk driving charges following an incident in February.
An estimated 130 people are killed in British Columbia every year as a result of drunk driving, noted Insp. Mike Diack, of the RCMP's B.C. Traffic Services. "It's unacceptable, we need to change people's behaviour."
Mr. de Jong said he fully expects the new law to be challenged in court. "We think we've struck the right balance so it will withstand what is probably an inevitable challenge."
The changes announced yesterday also include new rules for motorcyclists. The province is seeking to ban the so-called "skull caps" favoured by some riders. The changes don't sit well with Energy Minister Blair Lekstrom, who prefers to wear the smaller helmet style "for the simple reason, I choose to."