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B.C. brings in tougher penalties for drivers caught texting, e-mailing

Three months after starting a program to raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving, Karen Bowman was jolted by a call about her eight-year-old daughter being injured in a car crash.The little girl was getting a ride home from school when a distracted driver slammed into the vehicle, causing serious head injuries that still affect Kylee Bowman's life, her mother told a news conference announcing B.C.'s tougher penalties for people who text or email behind the wheel.

"It is not a phone call I will ever forget," said Bowman, who founded Drop It and Drive.

The Nanaimo, B.C., resident said she started the program in 2010, at about the same time the province introduced penalties for using hand-held mobile devices while driving.

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"Three months later, on Jan. 5, 2011, we got the call from the crash scene involving our eight-year-old daughter," Bowman said. "The end result was she just turned 14 and she's got post-traumatic stress disorder from the crash. She is in pain all the time."

Public Safety Minister Mike Morris said B.C. is increasing distracted driver penalties substantially after most British Columbians called for tougher penalties following a public consultation process launched two years ago.

As of June 1, people who drive while distracted will face a minimum fine of $368 and pay another $175 for four penalty points they'll receive with the ticket, bringing the total to $543 for first-time offenders.

Morris said the fine will leap to $888 for second offences within 12 months and escalate further if a driver is stopped again, with penalty points stacking up.

He said that of June 1, distracted drivers will be committing a high-risk offence, with second-time offenders facing an automatic review and the possibility of losing their licence for three to 12 months.

"We're getting tough because distracted driving kills," Morris told the news conference. "In 2014 alone, distracted driving and inattention contributed to 66 deaths," he said, adding 630 people were injured in the province that year.

"I was a police officer for 32 years and I've seen some pretty grisly reminders out there about why we need to be as serious as we are about this," Morris said.

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Chief Les Sylven of the Central Saanich Police Department, who is president of the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, said more than 42,000 distracted driving tickets were handed out in B.C. between 2010 and 2014, but the annual death rate didn't drop below 60 people.

"It's clear our current penalties have not been enough to change this dangerous driving behaviour," he said. "Police across B.C. welcome these new penalties. The day will come when distracted driving is as socially unacceptable in B.C. as drinking and driving and not using your seatbelt."

Bowman, who visits schools, boardrooms and community agencies to speak about the dangers of distracted driving, said B.C.'s penalties go beyond her expectations.

"They've taken a really strong stand," she said.

The Canadian Automobile Association says the maximum fine for a first-time distracted driving offence in Prince Edward Island is $1,200, and people who text or email behind the wheel in Ontario are fined a maximum of $1,000.

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