New Impaired Driving Legislation
Bill C-46 will be a key issue as Parliament resumes this month. If passed, the Bill would simplify the federal impaired driving law, create new drug-related driving offences, and address evidentiary and procedural concerns that allow impaired drivers to avoid conviction. We support these measures because they will improve the federal impaired driving law.
However, in terms of reducing impaired driving deaths, the most important change is the mandatory alcohol screening (MAS) provision. This measure would authorize police to demand a roadside breath test from any driver who they have lawfully stopped. The test results would not be admissible in court, but rather would be used solely to determine if there were grounds for further testing. MAS tests are conducted while the drivers remain seated in their car, are non-intrusive and involve a stop of about two minutes.
Opponents claim that MAS is unnecessary and that Canada’s impaired driving laws are working well. It is difficult to see how anyone can credibly make this claim, given that impairment-related crashes kill about 1,000 Canadians each year and injure nearly 60,000 more.
In fact, Canada has an extremely poor impaired driving record. Consistent with earlier studies, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported that Canada had the highest percentage of alcohol-related crash deaths among 20 high-income countries in 2013. Although Canadians drink less than the residents of most of these other countries, they are much more likely to die in an alcohol-related crash. A key difference between Canada and almost all of these other countries is that they have enacted MAS legislation.
Research over the last 45 years in numerous countries shows that MAS generates substantial and lasting reductions in impaired driving crashes. For example, a 2004 study concluded that New Zealand’s MAS program resulted in a 54% decrease in serious and fatal nighttime crashes and saved society more than $1 billion in 1997. Ireland achieved similar reductions in crash deaths and injuries within a decade of enacting MAS in 2006. Rather than overburdening Ireland’s courts, MAS was the major factor in impaired driving charges dropping from 18,560 to 6,525 during this period.
Critics have claimed that MAS could lead to discrimination or targeting of certain groups. In fact, the opposite is true. Canadian police already have authority to stop and question drivers about their driving and sobriety. Millions of drivers are stopped each year at sobriety checkpoints and during routine police patrol activities. Currently, the processing of these drivers is based on the officer’s subjective assessment, using his or her own unaided senses.
MAS would change only one aspect of the existing law – namely, the basis for demanding a roadside breath test. In contrast to the current system, all drivers stopped would be assessed based on an objective, non-arbitrary screening test, rather than an officer’s subjective judgement. MAS limits subjectivity in assessing drivers.
While MAS, like many other criminal amendments, will be challenged under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it must be put in the context of other accepted screening procedures. Millions of Canadians are routinely subject to mandatory screening at Canadian airports, borders, courts, and many other government buildings. The Canadian courts have never held these mandatory searches to violate the Charter.
Put bluntly, far more Canadians are killed in alcohol-related crashes than in attacks at our airports, borders or courts. Given that MAS operates the same way and serves the same protective purpose as airport, border and court searches, it too should be upheld under the Charter.
In our view, the Federal Government is to be congratulated on introducing MAS, a critically important and long overdue traffic safety measure.