PoV: Drunk-driving plans needs more thought

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Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s proposal to lower the legal blood alcohol limit for drivers to .05 per cent from .08 per cent seems logical, based on the evidence. But will toughening the sanctions reduce the number of drinking-related road fatalities and accidents? Not by itself.

In 1969, when the .08 per cent standard became law, it was considered the point of significant impairment. Newer research says the number is really .05 per cent.

All Canadian provinces except Quebec already recognize .05 constitutes a concerning level of impairment. In Ontario, for instance, provincial rules provide for penalties such as immediate, short-term driving suspensions and vehicle impoundments if you’re caught driving in the .05 to .08 range. It’s not a criminal conviction, but it gets the driver off the road.

Now, Wilson-Raybould is exploring the idea of criminalizing driving with more than .05 per cent blood alcohol. For impaired drivers, that would mean mandatory fines, with jail sentences for a second offence.

Canada’s punishments for drunk driving are already among the toughest in the world. And Canada’s rate of drunk-driving incidents is the lowest in 30 years.

So far, objections to the stiffer limit have come from the restaurant industry. But toughened blood alcohol rules would still allow an average man to have two drinks and a woman to have one, and be able to get behind the wheel of a vehicle legally.

A more legitimate concern is the possibility that more impaired driving charges will clog our already overloaded courts: such charges already make up 10 per cent of the volume. A federal background paper suggests, however, this won’t happen, because police only have so many resources to devote to drinking and driving.

If that’s true, reason would suggest those limited resources be deployed to tackle the cases with the greatest level of impairment — more than .08 per cent. What, then, would be the practical point of having new rules?

Another issue lost in this discussion is impairment from cannabis. The federal government still hasn’t explained in detail how drug-impaired driving levels will be determined or measured. Perhaps it thinks new alcohol standards are low-hanging fruit.

It can certainly be argued plausibly that tougher standards for drinking and driving will save lives. Turning down a potentially life-saving change because of cost is not a decision any politician wants to make. But pretending that new rules will truly make a difference without more enforcement and court time is a PR gesture.

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