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B.C. police chiefs call for tougher penalties on drivers using cellphones

The B.C government, ICBC and the police are launching a month-long campaign to prevent distracted driving across the province.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

B.C. police chiefs are pushing for harsher penalties for drivers who use cellphones behind the wheel, but the superintendent of motor vehicles says there are no plans to change the legislation.

The province, the Insurance Corp. of British Columbia and police kicked off a month-long campaign against distracted driving on Thursday in Vancouver.

Jamie Graham, chair of the traffic safety committee of the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, told reporters he would like to see increased fines and more penalty points for drivers who talk or text.

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"We want to get tough," he said.

Mr. Graham, who is chief of the Victoria Police Department and previously led the Vancouver force, said the dangers of distracted driving are not in doubt.

"If you text or use your phone while driving, you're selfish," he said.

"And you obviously don't care about other people on the roadway or in many cases on the curb or on the sidewalk. And you've made a choice. When you engage in risky behaviour, or you live a dangerous lifestyle, then bad things are going to happen to you," Chief Graham added.

Chief Graham said he is optimistic the province will eventually adopt the recommendations, but he cautioned "legislative change is slow." He said an increase in the number of tickets issued for distracted driving – from 2,000 a month when the legislation was introduced in 2010 to 4,000 a month last year – shows drivers are not respecting the law.

Sam MacLeod, superintendent of motor vehicles, said legislative change is not in the works.

"Just as it took time to change public attitudes about wearing seatbelts and driving sober, it will take time for people to realize the danger they pose to themselves and other road users when they drive distracted," a statement from Mr. MacLeod read.

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Attorney-General Suzanne Anton was out of the country and unavailable on Thursday, a government spokeswoman said.

Speed and impaired driving are the two leading causes of fatal crashes in B.C. Distracted driving is third.

John Dickinson, director of road safety at ICBC, told reporters 91 people die in B.C. each year as a result of distracted driving. He said a driver is four times more likely to be in a crash when talking on a handheld phone, and 23 times more likely when texting.

Drivers who use their phones behind the wheel face a fine of $167 and receive three penalty points against their driver's licence.

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