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The Globe and Mail

Emboldened by fewer fatalities, B.C. scraps plan for softer drunk-driving campaign

An RCMP officer performs a breathalyzer test on a driver during a roadside check in Surrey, B.C., just before midnight on Friday September 24, 2010.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Faced with new statistics showing a dramatic drop in the number of impaired driving fatalities, the B.C. government is no longer planning a campaign to assure British Columbians that it is okay to drink - a little - and drive.

The government introduced what it called the country's toughest drunk driving laws last year, but three months after they came into effect, then-solicitor general Rich Coleman said they were proving to be too onerous.

Responding to complaints from the restaurant and bar industry about the damage to their business, Mr. Coleman announced plans last November to launch a campaign to counter what he called the "urban myth" that abstinence is the only way to legally drive in B.C.

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"I think they don't understand they can go in and have a couple of glasses of wine with dinner and still leave and be okay," he said at the time. "The fear hit in such a way that they said they can't have a drink at all. That wasn't the intent."

That campaign never materialized.

New figures obtained from the ministry of the solicitor-general show the province has wildly exceeded its target in reducing drunk-driving fatalities.

The government hoped to reduce the number of fatalities by a third in three years.

In the first seven months, motor-vehicle deaths related to alcohol have dropped by 50 per cent. Between October of last year and April of this year, preliminary data shows 30 people have died. The five-year average for the same period prior to the new law was 61 deaths.

Mr. Coleman said in an interview that he now believes the law is working. "The efficacy has pretty much proven itself out," he said. He said he'd still like to see further analysis, but "obviously with that being down, something is working and I suspect it is this."

Ian Tostenson, president of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association, had been promised changes by Mr. Coleman. But he said he no longer expects that will happen.

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Under new Premier Christy Clark, Mr. Coleman was shuffled to a new portfolio. And, Mr. Tostenson noted, Ms. Clark's "family first" agenda doesn't lend itself to watering down drunk-driving rules.

Mr. Tostenson said he has held further meetings with government but has accepted that the law is here to stay.

"There is no way the government is going to do anything," he said. "I plan a bit better, our kids will drive us or we'll take a taxi. … It still hurts but people have adapted."

The new law, which came into force last September, 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.

The new rules also created 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 $4,060 after any roadside suspension.

RCMP Superintendent Norm Gaumont, head of Lower Mainland District Traffic Services, said there is little doubt the new regulations have been effective in improving road safety in B.C.

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"I can't think of any other legislation where we saw such an immediate change in driving behaviour," he said. And it appears to be sustained: In the first six months of 2011, in the lower mainland, seven people were killed in alcohol-related crashes. The five-year average for the same period was 21 deaths.

"Certainly we are seeing the results."

Between September 20, 2010 and April 30 of this year, there have been more than 10,000 vehicle impoundments for alcohol-related prohibitions provincewide. Roughly 20,000 24-hour roadside suspensions have been handed out in the same timeframe.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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