Ontario isn’t tough enough on first-time impaired drivers, lagging behind many other provinces, some experts say.
The criminal laws against impaired driving, from driving under the influence to impaired driving causing injury or death, and the penalties that go with them — ranging from fines to jail and prison time — are spelled out in the Criminal Code of Canada and apply nationwide.
The feds also set how much is too much: it's illegal to drive with more than 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, or .08 per cent.
But how the penalties are applied can vary, and provinces can impose other sanctions — yanking your licence for a year, for example, for a first conviction — not just for driving over .08, but for offences that fall short of that mark. That includes blowing in the so-called "warning range" of .05 per cent or more on a breathalyzer test.
Such supplementary sanctions could be tougher in Ontario, some say.
In Ontario, a first offence above .05 brings only a three-day discretionary licence suspension. A second brings a seven-day suspension, a third draws a 30-day suspension.
In the Atlantic provinces, by contrast, it’s a mandatory seven-day licence suspension. Newfoundland and Labrador allows an additional discretionary, seven-day vehicle impoundment; it's three days in P.E.I. and New Brunswick.
Police in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia can tack on a three-day impoundment to a first-time, three-day licence suspension.
Andrew Murie, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Canada, wants Ontario’s three-day suspension upped to seven days, and automatic vehicle impoundment added.
“One of the very upsetting things about Ontario, and it’s almost snobbery, they have a very good record as far as deaths (from impaired driving),” he said. “They look at the numbers and go, ‘We’re the best, we don’t need to change.’ . . . That makes me sick when you get that kind of response from government officials.”
In addition, some provinces — but not Ontario — force convicted drivers into programs that focus on rehabilitation.
B.C.’s eight- and 16-hour responsible rehabilitation programs have cut deaths caused by impaired drivers by half, Murie said.
“It’s not about being tough, it’s about being smart,” he said. “Focusing on the rehabilitation of the impaired driver, not having them repeat the offence, that’s a good thing.”
If children are in a vehicle with an impaired driver, that should trigger an automatic child welfare investigation, Murie said.
The best answer — making breath alcohol ignition interlock devices mandatory — isn’t feasible, said Doug Beirness, senior research associate at the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. “It’s harder than you think, there’s a number of problems with it.”
For one, it would take more than 20 years to equip every vehicle on the road. But in the 40 years Beirness has been researching impaired driving, there hasn’t been enough consumer interest to have interlock devices in their cars, he said.
Widespread use of mandatory alcohol screening by law enforcement — allowing them to demand a breath sample during any lawful traffic stop — also would make a big difference. “If I was going to put my eggs in one basket, that’s the one I’d put mine in right now,” he said.
“There has to be a consensus . . . that if you drink and drive, you stand a really good chance of being stopped,” Beirness said.
A 2016 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Canada first among 19 wealthy nations for share of roadway deaths — 34 per cent, more than one in three — linked to alcohol.
Western University law professor Robert Solomon, who studies impaired driving charges, said Canada has “very, very low” enforcement, and it varies from province to province.
“Simply because a jurisdiction has low charge rates, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is far more limited incidence of impaired driving,” he said. “Some jurisdictions have taken a harder stand on sentencing than others.”
In 2017, 43,312 Canadians faced federal, alcohol-related impaired driving charges. Another 2,036 faced drug-related impaired counts.
That same year, 82 people were charged with impaired driving causing death in Canada. Only 27, or 33 per cent, were convicted.
In 2018 across Canada, 382 people were accused — and about 42 per cent of them convicted — of impaired driving causing bodily harm. But likely thousands of people are injured every year, Solomon said.
While it's important the penalty reflects the severity of the crime, Solomon said penalties have a “very limited deterrent impact” on impaired driving.
“There is a tendency by media and by the government to focus on sentencing and call for heavier penalties. That’s fine and dandy, but sentencing tells you what happens after the death, it’s the tail of the dog,” he said.
“We need to ensure we have effective laws that deter.”
- Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative, London Free Press