B.C.’s tough impaired-driving penalties aren’t worrying at least one Vancouver bar owner.
Eli Gershkovitch, owner of Steamworks Bar and Restaurant, said sales are up compared to last year and he has even had to hire additional staff.
Inside Steamworks, a hockey game blares on widescreen TVs and patrons sip foamy house-brewed pints. Servers rush from table to table, tossing down coasters and passing out drinks.
“We have seen a significant increase in business,” Gershkovitch said.
Many bar and restaurant owners complain that B.C.’s new impaired-driving penalties – billed by the province as the toughest in Canada – are draining their sales. However, establishments with easy access to public transit are thriving.
Steamworks sits directly next to Waterfront Station, which provides transit connections to the North Shore, Richmond, Burnaby and parts of Coquitlam. Taxis line up along the block at all hours of the night.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the laws have changed and business is going up,” Gershkovitch said. “People’s habits are changing.”
While business is down 30 to 60 per cent across the province, some bars have lost as much as 80 per cent, said Kim Haakstad, executive director of the Alliance of Beverage Licensees of B.C.
The bars hit the hardest are in suburban or rural areas that have less reliable public transit and taxi services, she said.
Getting home safely
Under the new penalties, drivers caught with a blood alcohol level of .05 or higher could be immediately slapped with a driving ban ranging from three to 30 days and a fine of between $200 and $500.
During the first month the new rules were in place, police impounded the vehicles of 1,239 impaired drivers across B.C.
Drivers are so afraid to lose their vehicles that they won’t even have a drink with dinner, Haakstad said.
“Imagine if your family car was taken away for even just three days. How would you get to work? How would you get your kids to school?”
Across the harbour in North Vancouver, the Queen’s Cross pub struggles to adapt to the new regulations. Bar staff now offer free non-alcoholic drinks to designated drivers.
But server Mandy Cox said that many patrons still struggle to find a way home.
“Taxis here are impossible to get,” she said. “On Halloween our customers waited almost three hours for a taxi.”
Sunshine Cabs driver Ash Thatl said that it can be busy on holidays, but overall business has not increased in North Vancouver.
Although the Queen’s Cross is located near many bus routes on Lonsdale Street, it lacks rapid-transit services like the SkyTrain. Cox said her clientele tends not to rely on public transit.
“It’s like they put in these laws without doing anything to support them,” Cox said. “If you don’t want people to drink and drive, make it easy for them not to.”
Back downtown, Maya Kramer always takes the bus home when she goes out to the bar. Her father was killed by a drunk driver, and she said she would never consider driving drunk.
Maya Kramer speaks about her father’s death
“I rarely drive in Vancouver anyway,” she said. “The traffic is so horrible here. I have three buses that go by my house, so I’ve never had a problem.”
Kramer currently lives on West Broadway, but said she is moving to North Vancouver next month. She said she isn’t sure how her habits will change.
“The SeaBus ends so early. Do I drive [downtown] and not drink? Do I just stay home? I know cabs are going to be a bigger expense,” she said.
SeaBus and SkyTrain services end at 1:20 a.m., at least an hour before most bars and nightclubs close. Night buses to the suburbs run every half hour until 3 a.m., although connecting buses may have stopped running.
The early curfew for transit is a drain on sales, said Black Frog manager Matt Lautsch. But the bar’s Gastown location is an ideal spot for patrons who live downtown and simply walk to bars.
The laws are already saving lives, police reported at a Nov. 17 Mothers Against Drunk Driving event. In October 2010, four people died due to impaired driving in B.C. In the same month last year, 13 fatal accidents occurred.
Solicitor-General Rich Coleman announced in November that the provincial government is considering amending the legislation due to unintended financial consequences to bars and restaurants.
Later, in a press release, he said the penalties were not under review and he only wished that police would exercise more discretion when impounding vehicles.
Safety advocates approve of the legislation. It has the potential to eliminate drunk driving, said Allan Lamb, executive director of the BCAA Traffic Safety Foundation.
“It seems like there’s an attitude that you can have two or three drinks and then drive home,” Lamb said. “But studies have shown that even one drink will make your ability to drive impaired.”