Thursday, October 28, 2004

'Crackdown' on drunk driving really masks decriminalization

VICTORIA - Don't fall for the rhetoric about getting tough on drunk driving.
While the debate about decriminalizing marijuana rages on, we've already quietly decriminalized most drinking and driving offences in B.C.
The Liberals introduced changes to drinking and driving penalties in the brief fall session, and even got a few headlines that talked about a crackdown on impaired drivers.
But the changes - though useful - continue the process of decriminalizing drinking and driving, and treating it as a less serious offence than Parliament intended.
Canada's laws say that drinking and driving is a criminal offence.
But enforcing the law would cost money that the government doesn't want to spend, for police and prosecutors and court time. So the province has moved to cheaper alternatives, with much less serious consequences for drinking drivers.
About 51,000 drinking drivers were caught by B.C. police last year. But only 7,000 - 15 per cent - faced Criminal Charges. The rest received 24-hour roadside suspensions and were sent on their way.
In some cases, there may not have been clear enough evidence for criminal charges, and the blood alcohol level is lower for a roadside suspension is lower.
But the government's own review released last year found that police just don't have the time to process drunk drivers and do the work needed to lay charges. The government also doesn't want to pay for the prosecutors and court time needed to handle more offenders, with drinking and driving offences already taking one-quarter of provincial court trial time.
It's too expensive to enforce the law, so charges are now reserved for the very drunk, repeat offenders or people who are in accidents.
The changes to provincial laws didn't change that. The government remains unprepared to pay the cost of enforcing the law.
They amendments are useful, but relatively minor compared to all the rhetoric about the dangers of drinking and driving.
B.C. will finally end its dubious distinction as the only province that doesn't require offenders to take a course on drinking and driving, and if necessary receive alcohol counselling. (Alberta has been requiring the courses for 30 years.)
But the province still took a baby step. Only repeat offenders and the small minority convicted of a Criminal Code offence will have to take the course. The government estimates that one in seven of those guilty of drinking and driving will have to take the course. the message - intended or not - is that 85 per cent of drinking drivers aren't really doing anything too bad, and have just made a little mistake.
The other changes are also worthwhile, but small. Minimum fines for driving while suspended were raised from $300 to $500, and possible terms of vehicle impoundment doubled.
And the government introduced the use of ignition interlock devices, which require some offenders to provide a breath sample before they start their cars.
Again though, it's a small step. Only drivers who have been convicted of three Criminal Code drinking and driving offences will be considered for the program, and it remains optional. In Ontario, the device is mandatory after two convictions. (But then in Ontario a third conviction brings a lifetime driving ban, which can be reduced to 10 years. In B.C. the ban is only five years.
Overall, the changes make sense. But they are very small, even timid steps.
One reason is likely pragmatic. Make the consequences too tough and penalties too severe, and drivers will have the same incentive to spend time and money fighting them. That is what helped lead the government to move away from Criminal Code charges in the first place.
Still, the overall message is that the government is only moderately concerned about the problem of drinking and driving, and prepared to take only small measures to deter the hundreds of thousands of people who take to the roads impaired each year in B.C.
Footnote: What's urgently needed is an awareness and education campaign. The government's report on the issue found drivers weren't aware of the current penalties, and underestimated the legal consequences. People won't be deterred by penalties that they don't even know exist.

1 comment:

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