A Brief History of the BC Highway Traffic Patrol

BC Highway Patrol posing in front of the Lions Gate Bridge, during the 1970s

Most folks born in the 1970s or earlier will probably remember the smash television hit, CHiPs.
The show followed the adventures of two California highway patrol officers as they kept state highways running safely and smoothly. If you didn’t get a chance to experience it then – don’t fret – you can get a sense of that super seventies magic here  (you’re welcome). Did you know that BC also had its own highway patrol enforcement? Not many folks do. Which is why we’d like to shine some light on the work they did, why they did it and what became of them.

Origins of the Department of Highways Traffic Patrol

During the 1950s, British Columbia was undergoing an incredible post war boom. New highways infrastructure projects (bridges and freeways) were being built at a rapid pace, automobiles were everywhere, and cell phones and the internet were light years away. Motorists often needed help at the roadside and the Department of Highways Traffic Patrol was there to help.

Formed in 1958, the Department of Highways Traffic Patrol was responsible for traffic control on five major lower mainland bridges – First Narrows (Lions Gate), Second Narrows (Iron-workers Memorial), Oak Street Bridge, George Massey Tunnel, Port Mann Bridge and all their approaches. The patrol consisted of both corporals and patrolmen (approx. 30-40), who were sworn in as reserve constables with the Vancouver City Police, West Vancouver Police and the BC RCMP.  None of the patrol ever had or carried guns while on duty.

Opening day on the Port Mann Bridge

Opening day on the Port Mann Bridge

Day to Day Activities of the Patrol

The biggest part of highway patrol work was to keep traffic moving. If vehicles broke down while on a bridge or in a tunnel, patrol officers got you moving again, either by radioing for a tow truck, fixing flat tires or even helping get you to a service station for gas or repairs.

Patrol officers were trained in first aid and their peace officer and special provincial constable status meant they could act as first responders in traffic accidents. The highway patrol offices at the Lions Gate Bridge and the Port Mann Bridge were equipped with extrication kits (also known as the jaws of life) and each patrol member was trained to use them.

Then of course there was the enforcement, which included radar enforcement and moving violations. Sometimes patrol members would conduct a safety check on a vehicle, run the driver information through the police database and discover the person had a warrant out for their arrest, so we would arrest them and take them down to the police station and lodge them into a cell there for the police.

Officers were sometimes deployed to local emergency scenes (such as the Hope Slide and the Deeks Creek Washout) as well as Horseshoe Bay and Tsawwassen Ferry Terminals to help with traffic control during the busy summer months.

A highway patrol officer shows his motorcycle to two young boys in the mid sixties.

BC Highway Traffic Patrol by the Numbers

Each year, the work done by the patrol was captured and reported. In 1973, for example, the patrol:

  • recorded 445,919 miles
  • dealt with 13,816 stalled vehicles
  • investigated 1,087 accidents
  • prosecuted 2,880 drivers
  • issued 1,127 warnings
  • arrested 31 impaired drivers

Additionally, they dealt with and investigated 31 suicides and attempts, numerous assaults, drug and firearms offences, stolen vehicles, escaped prisoners and many other offences.

What Happened to the BC Highway Patrol?

The special constable status of patrol members was challenged in 1982-83 and as a result, a provincial judge removed their status and ability to enforce infractions. Municipal and RCMP Traffic Services took over patrol enforcement duties and from 1983-1988 the highway patrol focussed only on removing stalled vehicles, attending collisions and doing brake checks at Horseshoe Bay terminal approach.

Following the privatization of highways in 1988, the patrol was merged into an early version of today’s Commercial Vehicle Safety Enforcement Branch, joining commercial vehicle Weighmasters and Motor Vehicle Inspectors to form the Motor Vehicle Branch.

A snapshot taken from our ministry employee newsletter circa 1978.

So, there you have it. A brief history of BC’s very own highway patrol. We hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane.

Check out our collection of amazing archival patrol images on our Flickr site!

If you have any questions about this, or anything else we do, let us know in the comments below.

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4 Responses to A Brief History of the BC Highway Traffic Patrol

  1. Amy on May 27, 2019 at 7:15 am

    Thank you for featuring Janet McIvor. What a lady! Paved the way.

    • tranbceditor on May 27, 2019 at 4:06 pm

      Thanks for your comment Amy! We are all for highlighting the amazing trail-blazing women in our history 🙂

  2. Grant HErman on May 17, 2019 at 8:55 am

    Really enjoyed the story outlining the history of our organization and loved the photos!

    • tranbceditor on May 21, 2019 at 11:27 am

      Yay! We are happy to hear that from you Grant 🙂

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