The federal government wants to get tougher on drunk drivers, and B.C. should support the push because this province was a leader in cracking down.
Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has announced that she is considering lowering the legal blood alcohol limit for drivers to .05 per cent from .08. B.C. and all other provinces except Quebec have been using provincial powers to enforce the lower limit, but Wilson-Raybould would make it part of the Criminal Code.
Under the Criminal Code, penalties are more severe than those the provinces can impose, and the federal minister also wants to make those criminal consequences even harsher than they are already.
Few public policies have had as swift and dramatic an effect on individual behaviour as B.C.’s introduction of “immediate roadside prohibitions” for drivers who blow over .05 on breath tests. Even if their blood alcohol is not over .08, drivers can lose their licences for three, seven or 30 days, depending on their previous records, and their cars can be impounded.
When the tougher limits were introduced in 2010, the effect was almost immediate. Restaurants complained that suddenly patrons weren’t drinking alcohol with their meals out of fear of getting caught on the way home, but the effect on drinking-related deaths was even more dramatic.
From 2005-2009, an average of 113 people died each year in alcohol-related crashes in B.C. From 2010 to 2016, the annual average dropped to 56.
Although the rules have been rewritten in response to court rulings, the program has remained in effect, and the province says it nabs about 20,000 drivers a year.
All other provinces except Quebec have adopted the strategy, so when Wilson-Raybould canvasses them for support on her changes, they should give it readily.
Between 1,250 and 1,500 Canadians die each year from impaired driving, and 64,000 are injured, making it the leading criminal cause of death and injury in the country. A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found Canada placed first among rich countries in the proportion of road deaths related to impaired driving — 34 per cent.
If tougher provincial rules have helped to reduce the toll, strengthening the criminal laws is also bound to help.
The current law slaps drivers with $1,000 fine for a .08 blood-alcohol level, a mandatory 30 days’ imprisonment for a second offence and 120 days’ imprisonment for a third. If the changes go ahead, those penalties would apply at .05.
Drivers who cause fatal crashes would face a maximum of life imprisonment for dangerous driving causing death, up from the current 14-year maximum.
And catching drivers could get easier because Wilson-Raybould is proposing allowing police officers to demand a breath test even if the driver doesn’t show signs of impairment. Under current laws, officers have to have “reasonable grounds” to demand a breathalyzer test.
The change would make the likelihood of getting nabbed much greater, which might penetrate the minds of at least some of those who think they can get away drinking and driving.
Public campaigns and societal pressure have changed attitudes about drunk driving. We take it seriously in a way that past generations didn’t.
For those who still don’t get the message, harsher penalties could make them see the light — or at least get them off the road for a while.