The B.C. government has hit some bumps in the road as it endeavours to strengthen its drunk-driving laws. Those bumps need to be smoothed out, but no one should get the idea that lighter penalties are on the way for driving while impaired. The government should continue its aggressive course to keep drunk drivers off the road.
As a result of the B.C. Supreme Court striking down part of the impaired-driving law, more than 1,100 drivers are having some of their penalties overturned. The government is cancelling the requirements for these drivers to attend driver-education classes and install ignition-interlock systems. In some cases, people will be eligible for refunds.
The cases date to a period in November 2011, just before the Supreme Court ruled some elements of the law were improper.
Some of the cases were being challenged on constitutional grounds, and government officials, after determining some strong arguments were being made, decided to overturn the penalties. Other penalties still stand, including vehicle impoundments, licence suspensions, and fines and fees related to storage and towing.
The overturned penalties shouldn’t be taken as a sign that it’s OK to drink and drive. Those cases account for only a small fraction of the 35,000 people who have been penalized since the current impaired-driving law went into effect in September 2010. The court upheld the other penalties and measures in the law, and the government amended the law to address deficiencies in 2012.
Police officers dealing with impaired drivers invariably hear this: “Why aren’t you out chasing the real criminals?”
Drunk driving is a crime. Impaired drivers are criminals. Dangerous criminals. They should be stopped.
Driving while impaired and driving with a blood-alcohol content higher than .08 per cent fall under the Criminal Code of Canada. (B.C.’s legislation deals with non-criminal measures associated with the law.) It is not a draconian law; if anything, it is too lenient. Other jurisdictions use lower levels — .04 or .05 per cent — and some countries have zero tolerance.
B.C.’s approach appears to be working. In the five years before the province implemented tougher roadside prohibitions in 2010, an average of 114 people died each year in alcohol-related traffic collisions. That number was reduced to 66 in the first year of the program and 58 in the second.
Enforcement is undoubtedly part of the decline in alcohol-related traffic fatalities Canada has seen over the past couple of decades, but so are changing social mores. Most people strongly disapprove of friends getting stumbling drunk and then trying to drive home, and peer pressure often works.
But not everyone needs to be at the legal blood-alcohol limit to be impaired. Driving ability for many is affected at a much lower level — research shows a measurable decline in perception and reaction at .02 per cent. Even a couple of drinks can make the difference between seeing that cyclist or not. The wise approach is not to see how close you can get to the limit, but how far away from it you can stay.
The B.C. government should strive to ensure its regulations are fair, reasonable and in compliance with the Charter of Rights. It’s counterproductive to get tough on offenders if those tougher measures don’t stand up to constitutional scrutiny.
But no one should think drinking drivers deserve an easy ride.