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Fewer auto fatalities found in wake of B.C.'s drinking-and-driving crackdown

Nizar Shajani, a forensic consultant, demonstrates the use of an Approved Screening Device(Breathalyzer), which is used by all B.C. police forces, in Burnaby, British Columbia, Tuesday, March 12, 2013.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Fewer people have died in alcohol-related crashes in B.C. since the province introduced new drinking and driving laws, according to a study by the University of Victoria.

Supporters of the laws – which immediately suspend the driving privileges of people who fail breath tests on the roadside – say the study confirms their effectiveness. The laws, however, continue to garner controversy, and opponents remain adamant that they violate civil liberties.

The study, released Thursday, shows that fatalities have decreased more than 40 per cent since the introduction of the province's Immediate Roadside Prohibition program in September, 2010, when compared with monthly rates in the 15-year period prior to that.

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Scott Macdonald, the assistant director of UVic's Centre for Addictions Research, said that, while it is possible the reduction in fatalities is simply because of chance, the probability of that being the case is quite low.

"We also looked at non-alcoholic related collisions … and we found no significant decline in those conditions," he said.

Under the province's IRP program, when police suspect a driver is intoxicated they administer a test on a breath-analysis machine that registers "pass," "warn," and "fail," readings. A "warn," appears when alcohol concentrations are between 50 and 80 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood (0.05-0.08), resulting in an immediate three-day driving suspension. A "fail" is anything above 0.08, an immediate 90-day suspension.

The program requires police officers to offer an individual suspected of intoxication two tests on two machines of the same model with the lower result prevailing. Prior to June, 2012, only one test was required.

The program has largely been hailed as a more efficient and fair system to charging people under the Criminal Code. The program eliminates the need for officers to take people to a station to administer a test, which is standard procedure under the Criminal Code.

"We knew right away … people didn't want their vehicles impounded and they would start changing their habits," said Andrew Murie, chief executive officer of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada. "This is just the final confirmation."

But questions have been raised about how fair the program is. In 2011, a judge ruled that there wasn't an adequate system in place for motorists to appeal their suspensions and raised concerns about the accuracy of the breath-analyzing machines being used. The law was subsequently amended and now requires police to offer a second test on a second machine. Drivers can appeal their suspensions to the Office of the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles within seven days of being punished.

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Court challenges against the program are continuing. A Globe and Mail investigation in March revealed that more than 20 per cent of the immediate roadside driving suspensions reviewed by the OSMV in December, 2012, were overturned by the B.C. government, with unreliable breath-analysis machines being the most common reason. In six cases, the suspension was overturned more than a year after it was issued. Many cases go unchallenged.

Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, says the program violates due process of the law.

"Of course we think there should be penalties for drinking and driving, and of course we want government to be doing its job to reduce the harmful consequences from drinking and driving, but we stand by our position that punishing people is the job of judges, not police officers," he said. "It just turns the presumption of innocence completely on its head."

Suzanne Anton, B.C.'s Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, issued a statement Thursday praising the success of the program.

"These results demonstrate that our approach to reducing the amount of alcohol-related injuries and fatalities on our roads is working," she said, adding that an estimated 104 lives have been saved since the new laws came into effect.

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About the Author
News reporter

Daniel Bitonti is a Vancouver-based reporter with The Globe and Mail. Before joining the bureau, Daniel spent six months on the copy desk in the Globe’s Toronto newsroom after completing a journalism degree at Carleton University. More

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