The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has grave concerns about police wanting to confiscate motorists' cellphones if they're caught talking on them or texting while driving.
Victoria Police Chief Jamie Graham, head of the British Columbia Association of Chiefs of Police's traffic safety committee, is calling on the provincial government to give police the power to seize cellphones from distracted drivers.
Graham, who was in charge of the Surrey RCMP from 2000 to 2002, said statistics show many drivers are still flouting B.C.'s distracted driving law, which was enacted in 2010. People are seriously injured or killed as a result.
Graham said the government should "raise the ante somewhat.
"This isn't rocket science."
His motion, if the police chiefs pass it at a BCAPC conference in June, will ask the government to increase the $167 fine, and permit police to seize cellphones for 24 hours on a second offence and for three to five days on subsequent offences.
But Josh Paterson, executive director of the civil liberties association, said it's "a bad idea."
"Police really aren't supposed to be the punishers in society - that's for the courts," Paterson said. "It allows police to be police, jury and judge at once and you really don't have any way of appealing it."
Paterson said that while the civil liberties association acknowledges the serious safety problem distracted driving poses, and certainly doesn't advocate a "free-for-all" on the road, it maintains present law, with fines and points, "should be adequate to the task." Seizing cellphones creates "a lot of room for breaches of privacy," he warned.
"We do believe police shouldn't be able to confiscate these devices," Paterson said. "For police to do this would be against the law, and we think it should stay that way."
In response, Graham said Paterson "raises some issues of process that are important. There must be due process.
"Nobody respects human liberty more than I do," he said. But the motion, Graham added, has the "unanimous" support of the members on the committee, many of whom are traffic staff sergeants from police departments throughout the province.
He noted that the motion must be passed by the BCACP before it can be presented to whoever forms the government after the May 14 provincial election. "Whatever happens, happens," he said.
Paterson said the BCCLA will respond accordingly. "We'll obviously watch and see what the province decides to do with this."
Liberal Justice Minister Shirley Bond said that while permitting police to seize cellphones "isn't something we're contemplating," she would be "more than happy to sit down with the BCACP to discuss their concerns."
Bruce Ralston, NDP MLA for Surrey-Whalley, said that while the NDP has not yet formed a position on the issue, he wouldn't support it. "It's pretty drastic, I think, as a step," he said. "I think you would have to think carefully about the implications."
Conservative leader John Cummins said he wouldn't support it, either. "I just think that it's a little over the top," he said. "I don't see where giving that sort of discretion to police is necessarily helpful."
Delta Police Chief Jim Cessford told the Now he believes something more must be done to deter motorist from speaking on their cellphones or texting while in traffic. "We've got some horrendous collisions and fatalities in Delta as a result of distracted driving," he said. "We need to do something different. The fine is not enough."
Seizing drivers' licenses is an option, Cessford said. Seizing cellphones is another, he added, "but I'm not convinced seizing cellphones is the way to go."
"You can always get another one," he noted. "A lot of people are using two or three cellphones as it is."
Cessford also believes something has to be done about dogs in cars. He said he was driving with his wife the other day when they spotted a driver whose attention was completely absorbed by a poodle that was running around on his front and back seats. "Look at that, how silly that is," Cessford remarked to his wife. He tried to stop the fellow, but the motorist was soon too far ahead in traffic. "That's careless driving," Cessford noted. "That type of stuff kills."
Chief Supt. Bill Fordy, in charge of the Surrey RCMP, likened seizing a motorist's cellphone to seizing a drunk driver's car.
"I think it is the best way to prevent the continuation of the offence," Fordy said. "Perhaps it's time the bar is raised."
Recent police statistics reveal that Surrey's motorists are a distracted bunch. Last month the Surrey RCMP handed out 775 tickets to drivers caught talking or texting on their cellphones, and 23 tickets for driving without due care and attention. That's 73 more than in February 2012, when the Surrey issued 677 and 48 tickets respectively.
"Clearly people are not getting the message about the dangers of distracted driving and putting themselves and others at a heightened risk on our roadways," Surrey RCMP Cpl. Bert Paquet said. "Advancements in modern technology have given us the ability to be available almost every second of the day, however, we need to remember that driving is a complex task and we cannot get complacent about staying focused on the road. Our traffic investigators have seen too many traffic fatalities and serious collisions involving distracted driving."