Their actions are indefensible: Roger Walsh, the 57-year-old Quebecer sentenced to life in prison this September for running over and killing wheelchair-bound Anee Khudaverdian in 2008—his 19th impaired-driving conviction. Andrew Anthony Charles, a 25-year-old from Vancouver Island, recently handed three years for an alcohol-soaked April 2005 crash that took the lives of his girlfriend, Doreen Joseph, 20, and cousin, Glen Charles Jr., 23. Wladyslaw Bilski, a 49-year-old drunk from Chatham, Ont., who, earlier this fall, got four years, one for each of the elderly women he killed—Marion Dawson, Jean Ripley, Verna Neaves and Bernice Phillips—when he plowed his minivan head-on into their car as they returned home from a November 2007 church supper. Bilski’s blood alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit.
The list of offenders, and their innocent victims, goes on. Anyone with doubts that drunk driving is still a problem in Canada need only scan the headlines. In an era where the rates of all types of crime have dropped to 30-year lows, and our roads are safer than ever, the sometimes lethal combination of alcohol and automobile remains a stubborn phenomenon. In 2006 (the most recent statistics available), 907 Canadians were killed in crashes involving a drinking driver. Thousands more were injured.
Little wonder that federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson last month announced his intention to yet again toughen the country’s impaired-driving laws. Endorsing the June report of the all-party House of Commons justice committee, Nicholson said he wants to give police broad new powers to conduct random roadside breath tests. (As the law currently stands, ofﬁcers must have a reasonable suspicion—an admission of drinking, or possible indications of impairment like the odour of alcohol, or erratic driving—to use the Breathalyzer.) RBT, as the random checks are known, is now in place in several European nations, and has been a long-standing practice in Australia, where millions are waved to the side of the road, asked to board “Booze Buses,” and blow every year. It’s a change that would put Canada, already home to some of the world’s most stringent sanctions for impaired driving, at the forefront of a global war.
But there’s a hitch. Despite almost three decades of experience, there’s no clear scientific proof that allowing police to arbitrarily detain and test drivers is any more effective in reducing drunk-driving crashes than the standard checkpoints. In fact, there’s a growing body of evidence—clogged courts, falling charge rates, overburdened cops—that our natural impulse to crack down on those who get behind the wheel when loaded may have become part of the problem. Is it time for a new battle plan?
It has been illegal to have “care or control” of a vehicle while intoxicated in Canada since 1921. But it’s safe to say that the notion of drunk driving as a serious crime didn’t really take hold until December 1969, with the introduction of a law that prohibited drivers from having more than 80 mg of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, and gave the police the power to conduct Breathalyzer tests. The 0.08 per cent blood alcohol concentration (BAC) has always been an imperfect measure. Levels of impairment at that level are different from person to person, but the charts suggest it takes a 180 lb. man four to ﬁve drinks over a two-hour period to hit that limit, and two to three drinks for a 120 lb. woman. Factoring in a margin for error, police in Canada generally won’t lay an impaired-driving charge until a person blows 0.10 per cent.
If you are tagged for impaired driving, the consequences can be severe. A ﬁrst conviction for blowing over the limit nets a minimum $1,000 ﬁne, and an automatic one-year licence suspension (although some provinces will cut the penalty to three months if the offender agrees to have their vehicle’s ignition system ﬁtted with a blow-and-go alcohol sensor). A second, no less than 30 days in jail, and the penalty for subsequent convictions ranges between 120 days and ﬁve years. Should you cause bodily harm because of your impairment, the maximum prison term is 10 years. If you kill, it is a life sentence.
And the act of driving anywhere near the legal limit has also become costly. Every province and territory, except Quebec and Alberta, now hand down immediate roadside licence suspensions, ranging from 24 hours to 90 days, to drivers who register 0.05 per cent and above (0.04 per cent in Saskatchewan). Such “administrative” suspensions don’t lead to a criminal record, but they often cause insurance premiums to skyrocket.
Much of the testimony before the Commons justice committee last winter revolved around a push to replace those roadside suspensions with criminal charges, lowering the legal BAC threshold to 0.05 per cent. Proponents argued that drivers with that much booze in their system are already functionally impaired, and that such a move would result in a “signiﬁcant reduction” in deaths and injuries. But the committee’s majority report rejected their calls, citing a “lack of consensus among experts” as to whether a lower BAC would really make the roads safer. (A recent study found that 81.5 per cent of fatally injured drunk drivers in Canada have BACs over 0.08 per cent, and that most in that group were driving with at least double the legal limit.)