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B.C. to crack down on distracted driving as statistics paint grim picture of death toll

Vancouver police constable Alex Chow pulls over drivers caught on their cellphones on Hornby Street in Vancouver in September 2013.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Distracted driving is killing more people than impaired driving so the B.C government is proposing tougher penalties for such behaviour, says Justice Minister Suzanne Anton.

Eighty-one people were killed in British Columbia by distracted driving, compared with 55 by impaired driving, in 2012, the last year for which statistics were available, the minister said Wednesday.

"It's remarkable that distracted driving is causing more tragedies, right now, than drinking and driving," Ms. Anton told reporters at the legislature in Victoria.

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"People seem to know they must not drink and drive. But distracted driving? People don't seem to have the same level of awareness."

Ms. Anton said some tougher combination of fines and demerit points are likely to be introduced in legislation this year.

In her remarks, Ms. Anton left no doubt there will be tougher penalties, but said she will seek guidance on how to proceed from the superintendent of motor vehicles.

"People don't like getting points on their records. Sometimes people write off fines as the cost of doing business. I hate to say that that's true, but it is," said Ms. Anton, who conceded she once might have engaged in distracted driving, but does not now.

"But fines plus points is much more damaging to a person's record. So that's another piece I am having a close look at."

In B.C., there's a $167 fine for using an electronic device while driving. The penalty for e-mail and texting while driving is $167 plus three demerit points on a driver's record.

"People do need to know that to talk on a telephone and drive is a dangerous thing," she said. "It's a ridiculously dangerous thing. People need to keep their hands off their devices while they're driving and focus on the task at hand."

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Ms. Anton said she was "very troubled" by such statistics as the 51,000 tickets issued in B.C. last year for distracted driving. "That's a huge number. People are still continuing to commit this offence. Police are still ticketing for it. It's not going away."

Kathy Corrigan, the B.C. NDP public safety critic, said the opposition would support tougher measures on certain conditions.

"If the government can demonstrate that the appropriate research has been done and increasing penalties is the most effective way to go, we would be supportive," she said in an interview.

Ms. Corrigan said she wants to see the government act on evidence to crack down on distracted driving.

But Neil Dubord, the traffic and road safety chair of the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, said he supported Ms. Anton's approach as is.

"I certainly admire the minister for being able to take this one head on and being able to tackle this problem before it gets any worse," Mr. Dubord said.

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The association has called for increased fines and demerit points, but has not set specific targets, preferring to leave that to government. Still, he said the penalties must be tough enough to make people lock away their smartphones while driving.

But he noted the unsettling danger of distracted driving.

"The average text takes approximately six seconds to read when you take your eyes off the road. At 50 miles per hour, you're going to travel the length of a football field. In that length of a football field, all kinds of things can happen," said Mr. Dubord, chief officer of the TransLink Transit Police.

He said the association supports a mix of tougher penalties and public education.

Ms. Anton's commitment follows news this week that a distracted driver in Vancouver with 26 tickets for distracted driving since 2010 had lost his licence and car.

"There are some drivers who are still not getting the message that distracted drivers are putting everyone's safety at risk," Vancouver Police Department Inspector Les Yeo said in a statement.

With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria

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