Last week, the Provincial Government announced changes to the distracted driving laws in British Columbia. Essentially, they are increasing the fine amounts and adding penalty points so that each distracted driving ticket will automatically attract Driver Penalty Point Premiums and become a significant expense to drivers.
I had the opportunity to poll a number of police officers from the Lower Mainland last week about their views on the fine increase. Many of them were not for it, indicating their lack of enthusiasm at giving such a hefty financial hit to drivers who are clearly not able to pay the fine. This, in turn, will lead to the loss of licenses and insurance and a greater financial burden on the drivers who are unable to pay. I can’t help but agree with them.
However, I also see this as part of a long game, played by Government, to further their objective of eliminating traffic court.
This Government doesn’t seem to like the court system. It already did what it could to take impaired driving cases out of the courts and replace them with the Immediate Roadside Prohibition legislation. The Government has also taken steps to create a Civil Resolution Tribunal with a view to eliminating many Small Claims Court proceedings. They’ve already passed legislation and are in the beginning stages of eliminating traffic court and replacing it with a traffic ticket tribunal.
I attend traffic court frequently, and this gives me unique insight into the types of cases that tend to make their way to court. I also get the opportunity to learn why people are in court disputing their tickets. From my experience, it seems that the majority of people who are in court to dispute their tickets are mostly there to seek a fine reduction or time to pay the fine. Of course, there are also the people who are there to see if the officer doesn’t show up (not likely) and the people who want their day in court.
It is also not uncommon for people who dispute their ticket to change their mind upon speaking with the officer, and then to seek a fine reduction or time to pay. These people are largely self-represented.
Increasing the distracted driving penalties will only lead to an increase in the number of disputes filed to request time to pay or a reduction in the fine amount. Given that many of the traffic court locations in the Lower Mainland already have waiting periods in excess of one year for a court date, the backlog in the traffic court system will become exacerbated once the new rules take effect on June 1, 2016.
The Government knows this. They’re playing a long game. It’s a trap. They want to see an increase in the burden on the courts because the publicity about the traffic ticket tribunal has been largely negative. Very few people are for the ticket tribunal, and those who are tend to be the people with very little experience in the traffic court system. I can pretty much guarantee that in a few months’ time we will start to hear about the increasing demands on traffic court, the backlog of traffic ticket court dates, and the need to move toward a speedier process.
Do you think it’s any coincidence that the first step of the three-tiered process to dispute a ticket under the tribunal system involves the adjudicator offering a fine reduction or time to pay as an incentive to pleading guilty? It’s not.
My experience with this Government has taught me that there is often an ulterior motive behind their efforts. And my view about these increased penalties for distracted driving is that they are designed to play into the narrative that traffic court matters will be better served by telephone justice. These fine changes are about the public interest in road safety, sure, but they are about more than that.
We should not let this change in the law make us lose sight of access to justice in the province.
Vancouver Criminal Lawyer with a focus on impaired driving, cannabis legalization and related issues, and immediate roadside prohibition defence.