With the close of every Christmas season comes a tally of impaired driving charges. The story is always the same — a disturbing number of Yukoners are getting behind the wheel when they shouldn’t. As Cpl. Shawn Pollard recently put it to the Whitehorse Star: “It’s almost epidemic; it just does not change.”
If we do want to make a change for the better, we must consider giving police more effective tools to combat impaired driving — tools that have been proven to work in other provinces. And if these tools can help save lives, our government should make this a top priority.
One could say we have a culture of drunk driving. We know from Statistics Canada that Yukon has the second highest rate of impaired driving charges in Canada. Alcohol was involved in 31 per cent of collisions in Yukon that resulted in serious injury, according to a 2015 report by the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators.
Right now, police have limited options when dealing with impaired drivers. For example, they can issue a 24-hour driver’s licence suspension. Looking at Yukon’s high rates of impaired driving, I think we can say this short suspension isn’t having an impact.
Police can also lay criminal charges, which is like a big hammer that only works for those who are, well, clearly hammered. But criminal charges are almost totally ineffective in dealing with drivers who are impaired but are under the legal limit of 0.08 percent blood alcohol concentration (BAC).
And criminal charges are hard to prove. Judges have to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. Many impaired drivers get acquitted on a technicality. Maybe the arrest was made too quickly, or it took too long to get to the station for a breathalyzer test and the results are thrown out.
We can’t just leave it to the criminal law to deal with this problem. As Pollard told the Star, “I don’t think we are going to arrest our way out of this.”
Here’s how we make our roads safer: we allow police to start handing out more robust immediate roadside prohibitions. This is what both B.C. and Alberta have done with much success. Under B.C.’s Motor Vehicle Act, a driver’s licence can be suspended for three, seven or 30 days depending on whether it’s your first, second or third time getting caught. Police can also impound your car for three, seven or 30 days, impose fines and possibly make you attend a remedial program.
These prohibitions are effective tools to make our roads safer in three important ways.
First, police in B.C. and Alberta can impose immediate roadside prohibitions on drivers with a 0.05 BAC – significantly lower than the criminal limit of 0.08 BAC. This means we’ll all need to think about drinking even less before driving.
Second, police can hand out these prohibitions at the roadside using a handheld approved screening device. Unlike criminal charges, there is no need to go to the police station to use a breathalyzer. No waiting months or even years for a conviction in court.
Third, the immediate roadside prohibition doesn’t leave a driver with a permanent criminal conviction. Young drivers are the most likely to drive impaired, with the most devastating consequences. According to MADD Canada, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 16 to 25 year olds, and impairment is a factor in 55 per cent of those crashes. Maybe getting slapped with an immediate roadside prohibition would be enough to stop them from driving impaired and ending up with a life-long criminal record.
And these tools are working. When B.C. changed their laws in 2010, they saw an immediate reduction in alcohol-related road deaths. By 2016, alcohol-related road fatalities were down 53 per cent, according to RoadSafetyBC. That’s more than 350 lives saved. And we aren’t even talking about the number of serious injuries that have been prevented. Similar changes have been made in Alberta, with a 25 per cent reduction in deaths, according to MADD Canada.
So why don’t we make this change in the Yukon? Last week, Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn told the News the government is contemplating some big changes to the Motor Vehicles Act in a few years’ time. Let’s get on with the business of giving police the tools they need to reduce the number of fatalities and serious injuries from impaired driving.
Last territorial election, thanks to the hard work of MADD Yukon, the Liberal Party promised to increase the current 24-hour licence suspension to seven days and impound the vehicles of drivers with a BAC over 0.05. They also promised to limit drivers under the age of 21 to zero alcohol. Presumably there would also be prohibitions that would apply to cannabis impairment. With legalization looming, that’s another reason to move on this now.
It’s easy to get lost in the statistics when it comes to impaired driving, but real lives are at risk.
Shaunagh Stikeman is a lawyer, facilitator and community advocate who lives in Whitehorse.