Deaths on B.C. roads linked to impaired driving are down 50 per cent in the wake of the new administrative roadside penalties that took effect last fall.

Tougher roadside impaired rules here to stay

Bar and restaurant owners give up on push for changes

The provincial government won’t soften its 10-month-old roadside administrative penalties for impaired driving, citing a 50-per-cent drop in drunk driving deaths since the rules took effect.

Nor will it embark on a public information campaign previously pledged to help revelers decide how much they can drink before they might exceed the lower blood-alcohol limit of 0.05 if caught behind the wheel.

“Half the number of people have died on the roads as a result of drunk driving based on the statistics we see,” Premier Christy Clark told reporters Monday.

Preliminary numbers show 30 deaths in alcohol-related crashes in the first seven months of the new regulations, down from an average of 61 fatalities in the same October-to-April period of the previous five years.

Police credit the new regulations – with the threat of stiff fines and car impoundments – for the improved driving safety record.

Police can now impose an immediate penalty on any driver who blows in the “warn” range between 0.05 and 0.08.

Instead of issuing a 24-hour suspension or a formal impaired charge, police can impose a 90-day driving ban, a $500 fine and impound the vehicle for 30 days, with the owner on the hook for the towing and storage charges.

Former public safety minister Rich Coleman had promised a review of the new rules late last year after the bar and restaurant industry complained of lost business because patrons were drinking less.

He had indicated that might lead to an appeal period where drivers caught by police could lodge challenges before the penalties are applied.

But no such legislation was tabled this spring.

B.C. Restaurant and Foodservice Association president Ian Tostenson said his members now accept that the rules are here to stay.

“When the theme of Families First came through from the premier, it was pretty obvious that no one in their right mind was going to say families are important – and by the way, we’re going to loosen up on the impaired driving penalties,” he said.

Business was down much more steeply in the immediate months after the change, he said.

Now, he said, the worst-hit businesses are down perhaps 10 to 12 per cent from before the change, possibly as patrons better understand the rules and make alternate arrangements for transportation.

He said it’s also difficult to say how much of the losses stem not from the drunk driving penalties but from consumers’ reluctance to spend due to the sluggish economy or the imposition of the Harmonized Sales Tax.

“I think we just have to adapt and find ways to make it work,” Tostenson said. “We wish it hadn’t happened. But it’s here and let’s make the best of it.”

Attorney General Barry Penner is also counting on the policy change to help decongest B.C.’s crowded courts.

The shift to police-imposed roadside penalties – dubbed by some defence lawyers as an effective decriminalization of impaired driving – means most of those incidents now no longer go into the court system.

Penner previously called it a side benefit of the change that should help cut the backlog in the criminal courts.

While those punished under the administrative system and not the courts pay a high price up front, they avoid possible court sanctions, including a criminal record, a possible one-year Canada-wide driving ban as well as potential jail time.