Canada ranks No. 1 for drunk-driving deaths
Critics say laws must change to include mandatory roadside breath screening
Canada has topped the list of 19 wealthy countries in the percentage of road deaths linked to alcohol impairment, according to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For Robert Solomon, professor of law at Western University and national legal director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the sorry record is the consequence of some of “the dumbest impaired-driving laws on the face of the planet.”
For MADD national president Angeliki Souranis of Montreal, it’s another painful reminder of her own loss of 20-year-old son Craig eight years ago and of the work still left to do in reducing the toll of impaired driving in Canada.
“It takes one second to change life, to change futures,” Souranis told repoters. “And it isn’t just the person (killed or catastrophically injured) who is impacted, it’s this whole huge ripple effect, families, extended families and friends, communities, the cost to them.”
In a report released this month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed data from the World Health Organization and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development on seatbelt use, and the percentage of road deaths involving alcohol-impaired driving or speeding.
Canada led all nations with alcohol impairment involved in 33.6 per cent of its motor fatalities, just slightly more than the U.S., New Zealand, Australia and Slovenia at about 31 per cent, and vastly higher than the average rate of 19 per cent. Israel, at 3.2 per cent, had the lowest rate.
“I find it somewhat sad that it takes a study by the CDC to get the attention of the Canadian public,” Solomon told reporters.
“We’ve been telling the federal government and the provinces for 20 years
that Canada has one of the world’s worst records among developed countries in terms of alcohol-related crash deaths.
“It drives me crazy. As long as they die in ones and twos no one seems to care. It’s apathy, apathy, apathy, crisis.”
Things have improved, he said. Chiefly due to provincial legislative changes such as graduated licensing, programs for young drivers, zero blood-alcohol content for drivers until age 21, and enhanced administrative licence suspension.
The difference, Solomon said, is that most developed countries have taken two legislative reforms in recent decades that produced demonstrable results.
First, they lowered the criminal permissible blood-alcohol level to .05 from .08, he said, “because we know that driving skills are significantly impaired at .05.”
In every jurisdiction adopting this measure, rates of drinking and driving fell, he said, as did alcohol-related crash deaths and injuries.
Second, other developed countries introduced mandatory breath screening, he said.
At present, police can pull motorists over at any time to ask for ownership, licence and insurance. But they can’t ask for a breath sample without reasonable grounds to suspect a driver has been drinking.
Research shows, Solomon said, that “when police have to rely on their own unaided senses they miss about 80 per cent of the drinking drivers and a majority of the impaired drivers.
“That’s not the fault of the police. It’s just difficult.”
Every jurisdiction that has introduced mandatory breath screening has seen major sustained reductions in impaired driving deaths and injuries, he said.
It is “the single most effective impaireddriving countermeasure.”
Legislation to provide for mandatory roadside screening has passed second reading in the House of Commons and is to be studied by a parliamentary committee in the fall.
“It’s simply long overdue,” Solomon said. “This is a no-brainer.
“It’s very simple. Why do millions of Canadians continue to drink and drive? Because they can do so with relatively little risk of being apprehended, and if apprehended, charged, and if charged, convicted.
“Your chance of being killed by a drunk driver are about double your chances of being murdered, and, tragically, it takes a disproportionate toll on young people.” Souranis knows that tragedy first hand. The Montreal social worker has spent about 25 years counselling families through painful times and thought she understood what parents go through in the loss of a child.
When Craig was killed as a passenger in a crash involving alcohol, she came to realize how wrong she was.
“You think you get the level of pain that’s involved,” she said. “And it’s just an inkling of what families go through with the loss of a loved one.”
The Souranis family just marked the July 10 anniversary of Craig’s death.
“Our biggest fear is that our loved ones will be forgotten, that it will seem to the world that they were never here,” she said.
Just as she made her two sons wear helmets on toboggan hills and knee pads when in-line skating, Souranis had warned them about the dangers of drinking and driving.
In her darkest moments, she still asks herself if she told them enough. But she knows that for young people especially, “people just think it’s not going to happen to them.”
Marco Muzzo was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the drunk-driving crash that killed three children and their grandfather in Vaughan last year.