Impaired Driving

Impaired driving, also known as drunken driving, driving while impaired (DWI) and driving under the influence (DUI), has been a serious social problem as far back as the beginning of this century, when social scientists took note of the often deadly combination of alcohol and motor vehicles. Today in Canada, on any given night, 25% of the drivers on the road have been drinking; 6% of them are legally impaired. It is estimated that alcohol is involved in 50% of all fatal traffic accidents and in 30% of traffic injuries. Approximately 2500 Canadians die each year as a result of impaired driving. Impaired driving costs society several billion dollars annually in the form of medical and hospital care, property damage and lost working hours.

Although Scandinavian countries took action against impaired drivers in the early 1900s, introducing the use of chemical tests to measure blood alcohol concentrations, it was not until the late 1960s that the legal use of such tests came into wide use in North America. In 1969 Parliament enacted the Canadian Criminal Law Amendment Act, commonly known as the "Breathalizer Legislation."

Modelled on the British Road Safety Act of 1967, this legislation made it illegal per se to operate a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of more than 80 mg of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood (also expressed as 80 mg% or simply.08). It also gave peace officers the authority to demand pre-arrest roadside breath samples and made it an offence to refuse one.

In December 1985 amendments to the Criminal Code provided for stiffer penalties for impaired drivers, allowed for the taking of a blood sample where a breath sample could not be obtained, and introduced 2 new impaired driving charges. Referred to collectively as Bill C-19, the amendments raised the minimum fine from $50 to $300 for driving while impaired, driving with more than 80 mg of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood, and refusing to provide a blood or breath sample. In addition, the courts were authorized to sentence the offender to up to 6 months in jail, for a summary conviction, or up to 5 years if the charge was indictable. Mandatory jail sentences of 14 days for a second offence and 90 days for subsequent offences were also called for.

The 2 new impaired driving charges introduced by Bill C-19 are impaired driving causing bodily harm and impaired driving causing death. Conviction on the former charge provides for a prison sentence of up to 10 years, the latter for up to 14 years. In addition, the judge may order a driver's licence suspension of up to 10 years. The legislation also called for a mandatory driver's licence suspension of at least 3 months for a first offence, 6 months for a second, and one year for a subsequent offence.

The courts have been taking a stronger view of impaired driving offences since enactment of Bill C-19. Fines are higher on average than previously and prison sentences are handed down more frequently. In 1986 the Supreme Court ruled that 24-hour suspensions were not contrary to the provisions or spirit of the CANADIAN CHARTER OF RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS. Police forces across Canada make use of the 24-hour suspension as an alternative to arresting an accused.

A number of other initiatives have been taken to deal with impaired driving, especially since the 1970s. Roadside "Check Stop" programs and intense public awareness campaigns have become commonplace. The media has begun to take an increased interest in impaired driving. Provincial governments across Canada run rehabilitation courses, or violators' schools, for convicted impaired drivers, usually under the auspices of an agency such as the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC). In light of its finding that 25% of the attendees were repeat offenders, AADAC started offering a special course for repeat offenders in 1986, unique in Canada. In the fall of 1985, the federal Department of Justice launched a multifaceted campaign against impaired driving, including an extensive media campaign. It has also provided funds to assist in the implementation of community countermeasures and for further research.

Much of the public attention focused on impaired driving during the 1980s has been the result of efforts by grass-roots organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), People Against Impaired Drivers (PAID), and Students Against Driving Drunk (SADD). The citizen movement began in 1980 in the US but it quickly spread to Canada. Groups like MADD and PAID lobby various levels of government for changes to impaired driving legislation and exhort the judiciary to crack down on impaired drivers.

In Canada one of the agencies at the forefront of research into impaired driving is the Traffic Injury Research Foundation of Canada (TIRF) located in Ottawa. TIRF has prepared a number of reports and has been actively involved in efforts to reduce the incidence of impaired driving in Canada. A major research study prepared by TIRF observed that high blood alcohol concentrations are overrepresented among apprehended drivers or drivers involved in accidents compared to others on the road. Young people, especially those aged 20 to 34, show up most frequently in the statistics; 16 to 19-year olds account for 23% of fatalities, 18% of injuries, 15% of those at-risk and 11% of those arrested for alcohol-related driving offences.

Males predominate in all groups of drinking drivers, but TIRF has found that women are increasingly represented in the statistics, particularly among fatalities. Finally, a substantial number of impaired drivers involved in accidents and arrested for alcohol-related driving offences are problem drinkers or alcoholics. The TIRF study concluded pessimistically that the "alcohol-crash problem has not gone away; in fact, it appears resistant to virtually all attempts to reduce its magnitude." Although it varies somewhat from province to province, 25% to 40% of all Criminal Code matters dealt with by the courts are for alcohol-related driving offences. Convictions for those offences account for 20% to 25% of all provincial jail admissions. Repeat offenders are especially troublesome because they don't seem to respond to the sanctions currently in place.

Most agencies involved with the impaired driving issue agree that the long-term solution to the problem lies only in a change in public attitudes and behaviour. There is already some indication that public attitudes are changing. Recent research indicates that during the month of December, arrests for alcohol-related driving offences are down, despite (and possibly because of) increased enforcement; alcohol sales in private premises drop, designated driver programs become popular and taxis become the socially acceptable way to travel to and from holiday get-togethers.