Canada ranks No. 1 for drunk-driv­ing deaths

Crit­ics say laws must change to in­clude manda­tory road­side breath screen­ing

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - JIM COYLE

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.

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