A sobering punch at drunk drivers

Malcolm Gray October 25 1982

A sobering punch at drunk drivers

Malcolm Gray October 25 1982

A sobering punch at drunk drivers


Malcolm Gray

The statistics and the pictures and stories of the dead and injured are numbingly familiar—part of an appalling highway tax that is paid in blood and money because Canadians continue to drink and drive. Last year 5,370 people died in highway accidents, and 50 per cent of the drivers killed had blood alcohol levels above the legal limit. Not surprisingly, relatives of victims no longer bear their grief in silence. They are organizing themselves to demand longer jail sentences and licence suspensions for drunk drivers and to raise public awareness.

The emergence of antidrunk driving groups in the past two years—and the pressure they exert on politicians—has helped produce harsher laws and stricter enforcement. In British Columbia, which has roads over the most varied terrain in the country (mountains, deserts and the crowded Lower Mainland) and a frontier tolerance of driving and drinking, the first roadside licence suspension law for drunk drivers in Canada has been widened. Last year Ontario imposed 12-hour licence bans on mildly impaired drivers—those suspected of having readings of between 50 and 80 mg of alcohol in 100 mL of blood. And, late last week, Ontario set up a task force to probe ways to reduce the number of alcohol-related highway deaths.

Typical of the militant relatives of victims are Margaret Taylor of Winnipeg, Karen Mitchell of Etobicoke, Ont., and Sally Gribble of New Westminster, B.C.—all with the same tragic concern: each had a child killed by a drunk driver. Taylor, a real estate agent living in the prosperous Tuxedo Park neighborhood, gave up her job and formed Citizens Against Impaired Driving (CAID) in September, 1981, after her sixteen-year-old daughter and two of her friends were crushed in a car rammed by a drunken farmhand driving a pickup truck. Now, the movement boasts 250 members in Manitoba. Two months later, after seeing Taylor on television, Etobicoke’s Mitchell founded an Ontario chapter, known as People to Reduce Impaired Driving Everywhere (PRIDE). Mitchell’s daughter was nine and riding her bicycle to a Brownie

meeting when she was killed. Gribble’s son was almost 21 when he was killed in New Westminster—prompting her to organize the first Canadian chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), an organization with five branches in Canada and 96 in the United States.

Alcohol is not the only concern of the activists. The threat of temporary licence suspensions has been extended to drug users as well in British Columbia, where a policeman merely has to suspect that a driver is “affected” by drugs to impose a 24-hour suspension. Another amendment that is not yet in force would grant police the right to

demand a blood test from an impaired driver, even one who has been knocked unconscious in an accident. That would close the loophole used by many drunk drivers who have faked an injury and have been taken to hospital, avoiding a breathalyzer test, which must be done within two hours to be of use in court. A study done at Surrey Memorial Hospital in British Columbia in the late 1970s showed that 80 per cent of the impaired drivers treated in the emergency department had not been prosecuted, an escape rate that explains the reason that B.C. Attorney General Allan Williams brought in the blood test legislation last July.

While Williams is waiting to see if

there is enough public support for his legislation, Neil Crawford, his Alberta counterpart, is sympathetic to the idea of mandatory blood tests but does not plan to change the law now. That is too lax for People Against Impaired Drivers, an Edmonton-based group formed last spring. For one of its projects PAID plans to^identify judges it considers soft on drunk drivers. Volunteers will record the sentences handed down in court, and the Edmonton Journal has agreed to publish their findings when the survey is completed next year.

Partly as a result of the pressure on the government from CAID in Manitoba, a second conviction within two years for

drunk driving now means a mandatory 14-day jail sentence. Before Taylor presented a petition with more than 5,000 signatures calling for tougher law enforcement, a driver had only to last one year without a drunk driving conviction to avoid jail. In similar fashion, Nova Scotia has changed its law: “We decided to get tougher just in the past couple of years,” says Gordon Gale, director of criminal law in the attorney general’s department. Quebec also now imposes an automatic three-month licence suspension on anyone convicted of impaired driving.

When drunk drivers are caught, it is often because of a net of police operations. In Alberta police have been ran-

domly checking motorists, looking for impaired drivers since 1973 under Check Stop, a program that inspired Ontario’s RIDE (Reduce Impaired Drivers Everywhere) four years later. Both are still operating despite judicial rulings (which were later overturned on appeal) that the police could not stop cars at random and force suspected drunk drivers to take breathalyzer tests.

In Vancouver Insp. John Lucy plays “Lotto-Lush” several times a week. After he selects a piece of paper with a location written on it from a beer glass filled with 36 slips, 10 policemen seal off all the exit routes around the bars and ask customers leaving by car to undergo breathalyzer tests. “The program is very acceptable now,” says Lucy, “but a few years ago we wouldn’t have been allowed to do this—it would have been looked on as entrapment.”

The issue worries Reginald Robson, a sociologist and president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. “The community has been willing to abrogate significant civil liberties, personal protection has been whittled away, and I haven’t seen any benefit whatsoever from these draconian measures against impaired driving,” he says. Indeed, the increase in police enforcement has not stopped the death toll from alcoholrelated highway accidents in British Columbia from climbing steadily to 325 last year from 255 in 1976. “The powers that are being given to the police,” Robson adds, “are increasing year by year, and dangerous precedents are being set.”

Robson believes, moreover, that even though there are more police roadblocks, most drunk drivers escape detection. The Traffic Injury Research Foundation of Canada confirms that belief. “The chances of being caught are low,” says Alan Donelson, senior research scientist at the foundation.

With the Canadian Medical Association urging compulsory blood tests for motorists when police deem it necessary, and such groups as CAID, PAID and MADD demanding longer sentences for drunk drivers, governments are cracking down. Meanwhile, Robert' Whitlock, British Columbia’s superintendent of motor vehicles, has detected one positive trend: a decline in the number of all accidents as harder times grip the country. “The recession is affecting people, and they’re cutting down on their drinking, they’re not driving as much or going out at night so often,” he says. So far, no one has advocated a fullscale depression as the solution to impaired driving.

Suzanne Zwarun

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