What’s behind the drop in driving offences in BC?

The number of driving infractions in BC has declined steadily over the last five years, according to government statistics. The data, which was compiled by ICBC and recently provided to our office, shows a 

significant drop in driving offences in BC. The total number of contraventions processed under the Motor Vehicle Act (MVA), Motor Vehicle Regulations (MVR) and the Criminal Code of Canada (CCC) in 2017 was 470,000, down from 480,000 the year before.

A fall of 10,000 might not seem much, but it is part of a broader trend. In fact, data shows contraventions have been falling every year for the last five years.

This got us thinking. Are drivers breaking the law on fewer occasions? Or could the decline be attributed to traffic enforcement levels on the streets? To find an answer we asked the folks at SENSE BC and DriveSmartBC for their thoughts. But first, let’s delve a little deeper into the statistics.

Contravention numbers are falling all around

The statistics show declines across several different offence categories.

Drinking-driving offences, including both MVA and CCC offences such as Immediate Roadside Prohibitions and criminal impaired driving charges, fell from 28,500 in 2013 to 21,590 last year.

Graduated Licencing Program offences, such as driving contrary to a licence restriction, dropped from 33,000 to 26,000 over the same period, despite a rise of 2,000 between 2016 and 2017.

Electronic device use rose from 53,000 to 55,000 between 2013 and 2014, then dropped to 49,000 in 2015 followed by 42,000 in 2016. It rose again to 43,000 last year, which is likely due to various police campaigns targeting distracted drivers.

Contraventions at intersections, such as failure to obey a traffic control device, have fallen gradually over the last five years from 90,000 to 82,000. The government recently activated 140 red light cameras at intersections across BC, so this statistic may well rise in 2018. Police officers have told us that they are reluctant to issue tickets for this offence so it’s possible that the decline comes down to attitudes among police officers.

After falling from 190,000 in 2013 to 180,000 in 2014, speeding tickets have remained steady at 170,000 over the last three years.

Other offence categories that experienced declines include: commercial vehicles, motorcyclists, and occupant restraints (i.e. seatbelts).

Violation Year 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Impaired driving/Impaired by alcohol/drugs 28,500 27,400 24,200 23,000 21,590
Graduated Licensing Program offences 33,000 30,000 29,000 24,000 26,000
Electronic device use 53,000 55,000 49,000 42,000 43,000
Intersections 90,000 87,000 86,000 85,000 82,000
Speeding 190,000 180,000 170,000 170,000 170,000
Driving without due care 5,800 5,800 5,900 6,400 6,000
Motorcyclists 300 230 170 150 200
Flight from police 120 130 180 160 110
Commercial vehicle offences 2,400 2,400 2,000 1,700 2,000
Cyclists 5,800 4,700 3,400 3,400 2,900
Occupant restraints 42,000 36,000 28,000 23,000 20,000
Other MVA/MVR/CCC offences 96,810 91,680 93,770 95,620 96,450
Grand Total (rounded) 540,000 520,000 490,000 480,000 470,000

 Source: ICBC


Is the decline down to better driver behaviour?

It might be tempting to draw one conclusion from the fact that fewer and fewer contraventions are being processed: driver behaviour is improving. This assumption would contradict a narrative repeatedly pushed by ICBC, the BC government and police that bad driving behaviour is on the rise and that drivers are “not getting the message” by continuing to commit distracted driving and speeding infractions.[pullquote]“Either there aren’t people out there writing tickets where they should be, or those people are not being effective in what they do.”[/pullquote]

So are drivers finally getting the message? Is penalizing bad behaviour finally having the intended effect? Anecdotal evidence would suggest not.

Tim Schewe founded the website DriveSmartBC after a 25-year policing career with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, 20 of which were spent on traffic duty. He said the question of whether the data shows driving behaviour is improving is “difficult to answer.”

“If you look at it from a personal point of view,” he said. “I’ve been driving for 44 years now and when I look around me, honestly, I think that driving behaviour is getting worse. It may not be a huge change for the worse but it’s slowly and steadily becoming, ‘I’m important. You’re not’. It’s a me-first attitude and everyone else comes second.”

Is the decline down to reduced police enforcement?

Perhaps a more important factor in the number of infractions handed out is the level of police enforcement. If there are fewer police officers handing out tickets it makes sense that there would be fewer infractions.

“There’s certainly no lack of opportunity to write tickets out there so it means perhaps one of two things,” Mr Schewe said. “Either there aren’t people out there writing tickets where they should be, or those people [police officers] are not being effective in what they do.”

He went on to say: “I have been out of policing since 2005, all of my service was with the RCMP. In my experience, if there is a policing need somewhere else, the traffic officers are the first to be dragged and put to work elsewhere. To some extent, the importance of traffic policing is not held in that much regard.”

Michael Cain, director of research at SENSE BC (Safety by Education Not Speed Enforcement), agreed the number of traffic tickets is largely a result of how many hours the many police departments around BC put into traffic enforcement.

“Police departments are stretched for resources and have been putting less effort into traffic enforcement,” he said.

The Provincial Government has less of a motive to issue tickets, Mr Cain said, because fine revenue has been shared between municipalities since about 2002. So the province bears much of the costs – courts, administration, provincial policing etc – but few direct benefits in terms of cash.

Not all police traffic enforcement is dropping

Police budgets for traffic enforcement were not slashed across the board in the last five years. The budget for the Integrated Road Safety Unit (IRSU) increased slightly between 2013 and 2015 and full time employees remained steady at around 225 during the same period. The budget for the Enhanced Traffic Enforcement Program was around $35 million in 2016 so it would appear traffic enforcement is still being treated as a priority among some sections of the police in BC.

Derek Lewers, a researcher at SENSE BC, said: “IRSU and the ETEP program contribute to about 20% of the province’s total tickets for MVA infractions, and their speed and distracted numbers are climbing, bucking the provincial trends.”

Despite this, it may still be the case that local RCMP units are reducing their traffic enforcement levels, which may go some way to explaining why fewer tickets are being issued.

What about the economy?

We’ve noticed that the state of the economy can, to some extent, be measured in the type of offences that people are alleged to have committed. For example, when times are tough there are more domestic assault complaints. When times are good, there are more impaired driving charges because people are out having a good time and spending their money on food and drink. Although the unemployment rate in BC has been very low for the last decade, for the last decade we’ve lived on the razor’s edge where few people have any disposable income, despite working one or two jobs. The cost of living, mostly as a result of exorbitant housing costs, has cut to the bone. We’re in a time when one ticket can mean the difference between making the mortgage payment and bankruptcy. In times like this people can be very cautious, including when they’re driving.

Are there any good answers to explain the drop in driving offences in BC?

Some genuine social science research would be necessary to get to the bottom of why there appears to have been a drop in driving offences in BC. The government, always motivated by politics, tends to sponsor research that justifies its agenda, so don’t count on any good explanations from ICBC for example.

It will be interesting to see if the trend holds.

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