BC’s Crackdown on Cell Phone Use Disproportionately Hits Low-income Drivers

This post is a guest post by Emma Wilson of Acumen Law Corporation. Emma is a rising star about to be called to the bar in British Columbia come August. She is well on her way to being a leader in traffic ticket, driving prohibition, and criminal defence.
We’ve all heard it in the news, or maybe learned it the hard way. The BC government, with help from ICBC, the RCMP and the municipal police forces, is cracking down on cell phone use while driving. The laws against use of an electronic device while driving have been on the books since 2010, so theoretically, we should all already be aware of this and the only people who should be worried are the ones who are actually putting others at risk with their behaviour (which isn’t us… or is it?).

But there are exceptions. And then there are exceptions to the exceptions. People get confused and they do something they think is acceptable (such as plugging their cell phone in to charge), only to learn that it is illegal once they have been pulled over and ticketed. Now, ignorance of the law is no excuse, and public safety is, or should be, of paramount concern to all of us. However, I also have a secondary concern, which is the impact that the increased penalties for cell phone tickets have on drivers who may or may not be able to live with the consequences. So let’s go through those penalties.

First, you have the $368.00 fine. This on its own is nothing to sneeze at. However, the driver will also need to pay a $175.00 Driver Penalty Point premium due to accumulating 4 points on their driver’s licence that year. If the driver has a Class 7 driver’s licence, they will also be automatically referred to the Driver Improvement Program and likely receive a driving prohibition of 2-4 months. The law is kinder to drivers with Class 5 driver’s licences – for them, it takes two convictions in the space of one year to receive a driving prohibition. But if you do get two cell phone tickets in one year, you’ll also have to pay an increased Driver Penalty Point premium of $520.00 and a Driver Risk Premium of $370.00.

Here’s something to note about the Driver Risk Premium. ICBC calculates your premium based on convictions that you received over the previous three years. This means that if you get two cell phone tickets in 2018, you will pay $370.00 for those tickets in 2018, 2019 and again in 2020 – unless you are willing to surrender your licence. The fine and premium structure is all well and good if you assume that everyone can afford to pay it and that if they can’t afford to pay it, then they can find a way to live without a vehicle. But that simply isn’t how life works for many people. We don’t all live in the city and we don’t all make enough money to pay off the hefty fines without going through financial hardship.

Consider delivery drivers, who, in addition to driving for a living, are often expected to accept phone calls from their employers or use mobile phone apps in order to fulfil their job duties properly. Delivery drivers face a higher risk of receiving a cell phone ticket based on the nature of their occupation and the lack of education around acceptable and unacceptable forms of use.

According to Glassdoor.ca, the average delivery driver in BC earns approximately $25,000.00 per year. In order to earn that $25,000.00, they need to actually be able to drive. Living in the Lower Mainland, $25,000.00 per year doesn’t leave much room in a person’s budget to keep the kind of rainy-day savings that you might need in case of sudden loss of employment. Remember, if you have a Class 7 licence, it only takes one infraction to lose the privilege of driving. If you have a Class 5, it only takes two.

You don’t have to drive for a living to find yourself out of a job due to a driving prohibition, however. As the cost of housing rises in Vancouver, more and more low-income people are pushed out to suburbs such as Delta, Surrey and Langley. Vancouver remains the economic and social hub of the Lower Mainland, though, and it is where most of the service-sector jobs are located. Vancouver boasts an excellent public transportation system, but if you live in the wrong part of the suburbs, you may find that your manageable 30-minute drive turns into an unreliable, hours-long commute that often brings you to work late. Or you may find that there is no bus service that comes within walking distance of your home. All of this is to say that the affordability crisis has pushed many of us into relying on our vehicles more than we might already do so.

The next question to ask is how someone can afford to pay the fines and premiums if they have lost their source of income. I often see self-represented people in traffic court begging the Judicial Justice of the Peace to give them as much time as possible to pay the fines because they earn minimum wage and they have a family to take care of or because they are here alone as a new immigrant and have no source of financial support. While JJPs have some discretion in terms of how long the driver can take to pay the fine, this does not apply to the driver penalty premium or the driver risk premium. You pay on a set deadline or you lose your licence. You pay on a set deadline or… you lose your job. For those of us who can afford to deal with the fines, premiums and prohibitions, the results of the crackdown are a bitter pill but one we can swallow. For those of us who can’t, the crackdown can be a catastrophe.

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