Friday, November 26, 2010

Government fumbled drinking-driving changes

First the solicitor general, in charge of road safety, tries to convince the public that a little drinking and driving isn't so bad.
Then police reveal that roadside breathalyzer devices in the province - already used to impose licence suspensions on several hundred thousand British Columbians - were badly calibrated. Innocent people likely suffered roadside suspensions and further penalties.
The Liberals' changes to drinking and driving laws have turned into a mess.
Blame two factors.
First, a lack of honesty about the real goals of the changes, which give police power to impose much tougher penalties on drivers without laying impaired driving charges.
Even if a driver hasn't downed enough to blow over .08, the legal definition for impaired driving, police can now impose serious penalties. Blow over .05 and, for a first offence, you lose your licence for three days, have your car impounded and face about $600 in fines and fees.
The government pitched the changes, which took effect Sept. 20, as an effort to improve road safety.
That was partly true. The tougher penalties for people who blew between .05 and .08 make the consequences of being a little impaired much more serious. (That used to bring a 24-hour suspension.)
But the government was also looking for a way to penalize people without laying impaired driving charges under the Criminal Code.
Drivers could and did plead not guilty to those charges and fight them in court. About one-quarter of provincial court time is taken up with impaired charges. The government wanted to save money by taking that option away.
The measures worked. Bars and restaurants reported a 15 to 30 per cent drop in business once the new rules were in place.
That prompted Solicitor General Rich Coleman to encourage a little light drinking and driving. People had got it wrong, he said. "They can go in and have a couple of glasses of wine with dinner and still leave and be OK."
Coleman's advice is simply wrong. A couple of Calgary Herald journalists tested the B.C. limits with the help of the Calgary police department. The woman, who was small, had two glasses of wine and a meal over a couple of hours and blew .062.
Following Coleman's bad advice could be disastrous, in so many ways.
The other big concern was with justice. The new penalties could be imposed by a single police officer. Any appeals were not through the courts and came after the penalty was served.
Given that. you would think the government would accept a responsibility to ensure citizens' rights were protected.
It didn't. The standard for impaired under the Criminal Code is .08 blood alcohol content. But the machines are calibrated to signal fail at 0.1, to allow for a margin of error, which the manufacturers' acknowledge.
But the devices had been set to signal warning - bringing the licence suspension, vehicle impoundment and fines - at .05, with no margin for error.
Until the traffic safety committee of the B.C. Association of Police Chiefs said "recent" RCMP tests showed the roadside devices weren't accurate. Drivers might have been wrongly penalized. The 2,200 devices would be reset to .06 to allow a margin of error.
But about 170 people have a week have faced sanctions based on the faulty breathalyzer tests since Sept. 20. And about 35,000 people a year have been hit with 24-hour suspensions - based on defective machines.
What's most alarming is that the injustice wasn't identified by the solicitor general or the attorney general. Only a subcommittee of the B.C. Association of Police Chiefs protected the rights of citizens.
So we have a government in favour of a little drinking and driving, while bringing in tough penalties for drivers who haven't actually broken the law.
Drinking drivers have been kept off the road. But what a big mess has been made in stumbling toward that goal.
Footnote: Meanwhile, the government has reduced the penalties for driving without a licence or while suspended. Those offences use to result in vehicle impoundments of 30 to 90 days, but too many people just abandoned their cars. A first offence now brings a seven-day vehicle impoundment.

1 comment:

DPL said...

The Liberal government fumbles quite a lot of things which makes me wonder if they actually think about results before making announcements. do they ever ask anyone who just might have some real experience in the issue at hand