When four young people lose their lives in a collision with an allegedly drunk 21-year-old driver, as happened in northern Alberta over the weekend, the instinctive answer is to raise the punishment stakes for all those tempted to drink and drive. But while some toughening makes sense in Alberta, specifically a zero-tolerance law for any drinking by drivers under 21 (only slightly tougher than what the province has now), we hesitate to urge this country any further down that road.
There are already minimum sentences for drunk driving in the Criminal Code. And several provinces have an automatic licence suspension for any driver under 21 who has had a single drink – no matter what the alcohol level in the blood is. (Alberta has zero tolerance for anyone in the first three years with a licence.) For drivers over 21, several provinces (but not Alberta) have automatic licence suspensions at a 0.05 blood alcohol level (the “warn range,” Ontario dubs it), lower than the 0.08 deemed to be a criminal offence. These automatic punishments may happen without a hearing in a court. This month, a judge criticized British Columbia’s process for challenging a licence suspension and vehicle impoundment ordered by an RCMP officer at the roadside, saying it is far more limited than a hearing on a speeding ticket.
How much more punishment is possible? Vancouver police once supported a requirement that convicted drunk drivers display a badge of shame on their cars – a D. MADD Canada supports criminalizing drivers at 0.05, a point comparable to driving five kilometres over the speed limit.
Instead, Canada needs to renew its cultural attack on drinking and driving. This is a constant challenge in a country where ubiquitous pop-culture images link drinking and youth, drinking and sports, drinking and masculinity. It is an extra challenge in rural regions where taxis or buses may be few and far between, where parents may not be a quick phone call away to give a ride in an emergency.
The number of deaths in which alcohol is a factor is still enormous; in 2008, there were 1,162 people killed on Canadian roads in which a driver was impaired by alcohol or drugs. That’s a big drop from the 2,501 impaired-driving deaths on the roads in 1982. But the needless deaths of four high-school football players, ages 15 and 16, in Grande Prairie on Saturday morning, should be a spur to renew public-health and education campaigns against drinking (or using drugs) and driving. The law is an important deterrent, but it is not the only one.