Laws are never introduced in a vacuum. There is always some context, a perceived need that causes government to act. Whether it’s pressure from a lobby group or some event that brings an issue into focus, the introduction of legislation is always a reaction. Good laws are well considered, studied and introduced by legislators who generally understand the implications of what they do. Bad laws, on the other hand are often rushed through as a knee-jerk reaction to some bad event.
This week’s crisis
Just in the last week we learned of a woman here in BC who has 14 tickets for using an electronic device contrary to section 214(2) of the Motor Vehicle Act. At $167 each; that’s $2338 she’s paid in fines because she’s too lazy to use her bluetooth. This is newsworthy. She appears to have no regard for the law whatsoever. And, understandably, people are upset. Our concern, as lawyers, is how the government responds.
And as we might have predicted, we’re facing the knee-jerk reaction of the government to deal with a perceived problem. The question is, will the reaction deal with the problem?
As it stands if the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles views a person’s driving record as unsatisfactory, their office can take steps to prohibit them from driving. So the law is already in place. When properly applied, most people get the message when they receive a Warning Letter or Notice of Intent to Prohibit. A short driving prohibition or merely the threat of the driving prohibition is usually enough to discourage people from committing traffic offences. The problem is that if people are of the view that there is little or no enforcement of the law, the threat of a ticket or a driving prohibition is remote at best.
What is enforcement?
Enforcement comes in many forms, and it’s not just handing out tickets. It can be as simple as police walking up and down lines of cars at stop lights and showing their presence. A police officer knocking on your window when you’re reading an email at the lights is likely to make your heart stop. If the officer gives you a warning rather than a ticket, you might very well conclude that you’ve used your get-out-of-jail-free card. You’re also likely to be appreciative enough that you change your conduct and follow the rules.
Knowing that your behaviour is under scrutiny is usually enough to stop people from breaking the law. But enforcement costs money and governments don’t like to pay.
Cheapo government and the knee-jerk reaction
What doesn’t cost money is disproportionately harsh punishment. Rather than pay for enforcement, in BC the government likes to use a hammer to swat flies. Drivers in BC with just a couple of tickets in quick succession face the prospect of a Notice of Intent and then a driving prohibition. And now the government is planning on taking it further.
Just yesterday we learned that the government is planning on introducing in May 2016 harsher punishment for distracted driving (using an electronic device). What will be the form and substance of this new law? We don’t know, but it was announced as a knee-jerk reaction to the news of this person with the 14 distracted driving convictions.
We don’t know how this particular bad driver managed to slip through the cracks all this time. We know some officers will keep an eye out for certain drivers who thumb their nose at the law. We know that when certain convictions show up on your driving record, such as for excessive speeding, a big red light flashes and an alarm sounds in the Office of the Superintendent indicating that they need to scrutinize your driving record. We know if you have an “N” and you’re convicted of changing lanes without signalling on a remote stretch of highway with only a police cruiser in sight 400 meters away, the Office of the Superintendent is going to send you a Notice of Intent to Prohibit you from driving.
How this particular driver, with 14 convictions, managed to avoid triggering alarm bells appears to have been a mistake of the government.