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How a retired teacher lost her licence for drinking at home

When retired elementary school teacher Barb Copp broke her arm last March during an impromptu wake at her home after the sudden death of her best friend, she never dreamed it would result in the suspension of her driver's licence.

But less than two months after blood tests taken during an emergency room visit that night showed her liver enzymes were out of whack, Ms. Copp was quietly reported to the Ministry of Transportation (MOT) as "alcohol dependent" by her family doctor.

And when she showed up on May 19 for an appointment with the doctor, Safaa Loka, expecting follow-up tests, he told her he had turned her in a week earlier.

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"I think this is a quantum leap," Ms. Copp, furious in her dignified way, told The Globe and Mail this week at her pleasant home in this suburb northwest of Toronto.

"Alcohol dependence" is one of 16 specific medical conditions - including certain heart conditions, unstable mental illness and uncontrolled diabetes - that must be reported in most Canadian provinces if, in a doctor's opinion, it "may make it dangerous for the person to operate a motor vehicle."

Only Alberta, Nova Scotia and Quebec leave such reporting to physicians' discretion.

But if Ms. Copp's case is typical, suspensions may swiftly follow the submission of only the sparsest information - Ontario's one-page report requires just the date, a signature and a tick in the right box - and may even fly in the face of evidence to the contrary.

The province's mandatory reporting requirement under the Highway Traffic Act appears to date back to 1990, but the number of doctors actually doing it began to "steadily increase" only after the province's health ministry began paying physicians to do it in 2006, Bob Nichols, senior media officer for the transport ministry, told The Globe in an e-mail.

The province pays doctors, who are protected by statute for what otherwise would be a breach of patient confidentiality, $36.25 for each report.

Ms. Copp has a virtually pristine driving record - 53 continuous years on the road with only one speeding ticket in 2002 to her name.

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As she wrote to the MOT last May, "I am a responsible member of society. I am trusted by many to be the designated driver for social events. Family, friends and the local taxi service will attest to my claim that I do not, nor have I ever, put others at risk."

She taught school in the area where she lives, is a well-regarded volunteer and guards her reputation fiercely.

When her licence was suspended for a year last July, she was embarrassed and kept the news close to her chest.

"I haven't told many people," she said, "because I bet everyone will think, 'I bet she was drinking and driving and doesn't want to admit it.' It's the shame of it all."

So Ms. Copp suffered in relative silence for the first six months, feeling ashamed and believing she was probably a rare victim of Section 203 of the HTA.

But The Globe has learned that, according to the MTO's most recent data, which is from 2009, 22,384 Ontarians were suspended that year for medical reasons. The ministry doesn't track suspensions by condition.

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That number doesn't include drivers who were suspended for vision-related reasons or the 19,810 who were suspended due to criminal charges for impaired driving.

"Ontario's roads are among the safest in North America, and we are working hard to ensure they stay this way," Mr. Nichols wrote. "Mandatory medical reporting is a key method of protecting the public who may suffer from a medical condition that may make it unsafe for them to drive."

The MOT, he said, has a medical advisory committee, but these experts, he noted, "are contracted by the ministry to review complex cases."

Ms. Copp's doesn't appear to have been one of those.

Dr. Loka, who didn't return a message left for him on Thursday, appears to have submitted only the one-page form; certainly, that is all he gave Ms. Copp when she asked for a copy of what he sent the MOT.

And when Ms. Copp wrote to the ministry, she frankly admitted she had indulged in "over-consumption of alcohol" on March 19, and said "the extenuating circumstance was the death of a dear friend …"

"I called an ambulance to take me to the hospital," she wrote. "My injuries included a dislocated shoulder and a broken humerus. No operation of a motor vehicle was involved."

She never received any response to the letter, sent by registered mail.

The ministry website shows that an appeal is granted only if the driver pays $100 and submits additional medical information. The suspension remains in effect pending a decision.

When she received her formal notice, Ms. Copp saw that the one-year suspension - which requires a year of abstinence from alcohol - could be reduced if she completed a treatment program.

She signed up for one, but after four preliminary sessions, was told last Friday she wasn't considered a good candidate because she had admitted from the get-go she was there only to hasten the process of getting back her licence. Indeed, as a brand-new first-time grandmother of a baby living out of town and an avid bridge player, she is keen to resume her life.

Ms. Copp told The Globe, "I don't think I'm an alcoholic" and that she frequently goes a week or longer without a drink. But she isn't deaf to the possibility that at her age, with those blood test results (although they are improving), she might want to drink less.

But even if she were a problem drinker, that would be a health issue - her health issue - and a private matter.

What she isn't - and there's not a scintilla of evidence to say otherwise - is a drinker who ever gets behind the wheel. "I feel betrayed," she said quietly.

The ministry's own numbers raise the question: How many others are there who have been arbitrarily stripped of their licences absent evidence they pose a risk on the road?

As of 2004, not one Ontario doctor had been convicted for failing to report a medical condition.

And according to a study of Ontario's reporting law written in 2008 for Open Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal, although "drivers who have reportable conditions may over-contribute to crashes … the associations are not overwhelming.

"In summary," the authors wrote, "our data suggest that mandatory reporting in Ontario does not achieve its stated purpose…"

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