Ex-solicitor general questions impaired driving review

Tuesday, November 9, 2010 | 1:48 PM PT

CBC News

The is growing disagreement among B.C. Liberal MLAs about how to handle the enforcement of the province's new impaired driving laws. (CBC)

There is growing disagreement within the Liberal caucus about B.C.'s tough new penalties for impaired driving, with one former solicitor general criticizing calls for a review.

On Monday, newly appointed Solicitor General Rich Coleman appeared to bow to pressure from the restaurant industry and announced a review of the new rules.

The industry says people's fear of the new penalties means they are buying less alcohol, which is hurting restaurants' bottom line.

Under the new rules that came into effect in September, police can levy a combination of high fines, instant roadside suspensions and vehicle impoundments during a roadside stop without having to lay formal criminal charges.

Coleman said he believes too many cars are being impounded and said he's directing police officers to use more discretion with regard to how strictly they enforce the new rules.

But former solicitor general Kash Heed, who helped write the new laws, says police officers have always used discretion and don't need to be ordered to do so.

Heed, who is also the former chief of the West Vancouver Police Department, says the penalties are working and shouldn't be changed to suit the hospitality industry.

"It's unfortunate when people and industries use the narrow bottom line for all decision making, and it even trumps their social conscience," said Heed. "This, in my opinion, is an appropriate law here in B.C."

Criminal charges drop sharply

Meanwhile, a Vancouver lawyer who specializes in impaired driving law is questioning how tough B.C.'s new drinking and driving laws really are.

When the new laws came into effect, they were called the toughest in Canada. But Michael Shapray claims that because people who have a blood alcohol level above .08 are no longer being charged with impaired driving unless they are in a crash, the number of people facing criminal charges has actually dropped sharply.

"We have seen an 85 to 90 per cent decrease," said Shapray.

"People who have been pulled over for swerving their vehicles and blowing a fail at the roadside, that is over .08, have been released from the scene, with the immediate roadside suspension and no criminal investigation and no criminal charges."

Shapray calls it the decriminalization of drunk driving in B.C.

"We are now the only province in the country where you can fail a roadside screening device and not have to be taken back to the police station and not face the possible stigma of a criminal record," he said.

During the first month the new rules were in place, the province impounded the vehicles of 1,400 drivers for impaired driving, according to statistics released by the government last month.