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B.C. moves to soften drunk-driving message

British Columbia's tough new drunk-driving laws are considered so onerous, the province is preparing an advertising campaign to tell people it is okay to drink a bit.

"We will go back and do better education," promised Solicitor-General Rich Coleman, "and we'll look at this thing and see, going into the spring, if there is some certain thing we have to do to mitigate some of the public's concerns."

It's a major change in tone from last spring, when the provincial government organized a major news conference to announce B.C. would become the worst province in the country in which to be caught driving under the influence of alcohol.

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"We need penalties that are clear, swift and severe," said then-solicitor-general Mike de Jong, flanked by the parents of a four-year-old girl, Alexa Middelaer, killed by a drunk driver.

But Mr. Coleman said the message proved to be too effective. He has told government agencies to work together on a new education campaign to combat the "urban myth" that people cannot have a drink or two with dinner and legally drive.

"I think it's a big education piece. I think they don't understand they can go in and have a couple of glasses of wine with dinner and still leave and be okay. The fear hit in such a way that they said they can't have a drink at all. That wasn't the intent."

When he announced the law last April, Mr. de Jong said it would honour the memory of Alexa by aiming to reduce the number of drunk-driving fatalities by a third in the next three years.

Yesterday, the girl's parents were in court awaiting the sentencing of the driver. Laurel Middelaer, Alexa's mother, said she supports discussion of the drunk-driving laws. "It is good to have an open debate about this," she said. But she questioned why the province would reconsider the law, given that it has been effective in changing behaviour. "What is the point?" she said.

Mr. Coleman said he was responding to complaints from the public. But the main lobbying would have come from the hospitality industry.

Since the new penalties came into effect in September, business at restaurants and bars has dropped by 15 to 30 per cent, said Ian Tostenson, president of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association.

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"I'm very impressed that Rich Coleman and the government are prepared to take a second look at this," he said in an interview. "The impacts have been horrendous."

He said he supports the education campaign but said it isn't enough. He said the government still needs to "lighten up" on the penalties for people who are found in the warning category with a blood-alcohol level over .05 per cent but under .08. In those cases, penalties include an immediate three-day driving ban and a $200 fine for a first offence.

Mr. Coleman said police have told him the law has had a significant impact on reducing drunk driving, which kills 130 British Columbians each year. But he stressed that there are no statistics available yet to measure how effective the law has been.

The law gives police the authority to impose tough roadside penalties for drivers who refuse a breath sample or are found with a blood-alcohol level over the legal limit of .08 per cent. Drivers face an immediate 90-day driving ban and a $500 fine and their vehicle can be impounded for 30 days. They may also face criminal charges.

Mr. Coleman said police have been too quick to impound vehicles, which is happening in 90 per cent of cases under the new rules.

With a report from Robert Matas in Vancouver

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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