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Provinces' drunk-driving crackdown sparking debate

Ashleen Curran a server at the James Joyce pub in Calgary, AB serves patrons on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011.

Chris Bolin/chris bolin The Globe and Mail

Blow above the legal limit for blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 per cent? Depending on where you live, you may pay a steep fine, lose your licence and have your car impounded – all before you set foot in court. But blow in the "warn range" of 0.05 to 0.08 per cent and you'll still face penalties: a possible week-long licence suspension, a fine or even vehicle seizure.

Across the country, provinces are cracking down on imbibing before getting behind the wheel, especially for those below the legal limit.

Last week, Alberta tabled legislation that imitates B.C.'s year-old drunk driving laws, arguably the toughest in Canada. It's aimed at the warn range – police can seize your vehicle for three days and suspend your licence for the same (longer if you're a repeat offender).

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It follows eight other provinces that, in the past three years, have beefed up punishments for impaired drivers who blow both above the limit and in the grey zone just below it. Canada, once a leader in tough drunk-driving penalties, now lags behind its European counterparts who have adopted stricter legal limits.

In lieu of a change to the Criminal Code, provinces have embraced a shared mentality: If courts won't penalize drivers for drinking and driving just under the legal limit, provinces will do so through administrative means.

The crackdown is sparking debate just as we enter the boozy season of office parties and roadside checks.

Rules have become the bête noire of the hospitality industry, which says such punishment scares responsible drivers from enjoying a glass of wine with dinner, and they've raised the ire of civil libertarians, who point out they offer almost no appeal options.

Yet these critics face a tough battle, arguing as they are in the face of dramatic results, at least so far. B.C. saw drunk-driving deaths drop 40 per cent in the past year, with a new law, as compared to the five-year average. And even though a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled this week part of the province's laws violate Charter rights by allowing too narrow an avenue of appeal of their severe punishments, he endorsed the pursuit of those in the warning range.

Other provinces have adopted a host of measures to penalize those in the warning zone and have had varied results. Since most only introduced tougher laws recently, it's still too early to measure their impact.

Ontario has strict warning-zone penalties and boasts the lowest rate of drunk-driving offences at 139 per 100,000 people in 2009 – meaning it either has fewer drunk drivers or just fewer who are caught. Saskatchewan has the lowest warning range at 0.04, but only hands out a 24-hour licence suspension to drivers. At 611 offences per 100,000 in 2009, it has the highest per capita rate of drunk driving in the country.

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Though rates of deaths from impaired driving have been steadily dropping across the country, the reality is still grim: Of 2,575 Canadians killed in car crashes in 2009, 884 (34 per cent) died in alcohol-related collisions.

The new legislation in Alberta comes just weeks after four teens were killed by an alleged drunk driver just south of Grande Prairie.

While advocacy groups have cheered on a tough stand against even borderline drunk driving, are the warn-range penalties even targeting the right people?

Statistics show the foremost offenders are consistently men in their 20s and early 30s whose blood-alcohol concentrations are well above the legal limit. One study showed that more than half of drunk drivers killed in crashes are at more than double the legal limit.

Targeting drivers in the warning zone could dramatically change the demographics of those penalized for drinking and driving, presumably targeting more women and elderly drivers, who could face insurance-rate hikes for an administrative penalty.

Some say warning zone laws disproportionately affect small communities, where there are no cabs or transit. "The assumption of the legislators who put in these rules is that everybody lives in a big town," argues Ted Conroy, a Sudbury, Ont. defence lawyer.

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Warning-zone drinking, however, is disproportionately a rural problem – federal figures show that in fatal rural crashes where the driver is killed and had been drinking, 18 per cent are under the legal limit of 0.08, compared to 13 per cent on urban roads.

Those figures support the Canadian Medical Association's position that lower levels of intoxication are dangerous. The association has lobbied since 1988 to lower the legal limit to 0.05 per cent, a move many European countries have made.

Studies show visual impairment, steering inaccuracy and delays in braking time begin as low as 0.03 per cent, CMA president John Haggie said.

Several factors – including the person's sex, weight, body fat, food intake and ethnicity – affect the way the body metabolizes alcohol, so it's impossible for governments to give citizens a sure-fire limit of how much they can drink without breaking the law. B.C. planned advertisements on the issue, but scrapped the idea over fears of confusion, while Alberta will avoid them over liability concerns.

Nonetheless, the harsh new laws have left bar owners livid. The Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association supports crackdowns on repeat offenders and those over 0.08, but says tougher laws in the warning range will devastate their industry, a major employer of youth and new Canadians.

"They're targeting regular Albertans who want to have a social drink, and who aren't breaking the law," said Gerard Curran, owner of Calgary's James Joyce Pub.

In the year since B.C. introduced warning-range penalties, provincewide liquor sales have dropped 5.6 per cent overall, according to the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch. Some bar owners, however, reported drops of 20 per cent. Part of that decline could be due to a sales spike the previous year from the Olympic Games, but still, numbers like these have Alberta bar owners spooked.

According to statistics from 2009, Alberta's rate of per capita drunk-driving offences is the second-worst in the country. The province expects its new law won't be affected by the B.C. court ruling.

And cabinet appears unstirred by complaints from civil libertarians or those who point to the potential negative economic impact.

"The tradeoff? I'm sorry. I stand before you amongst many people that have been injured, many people that have lost their sons and daughters," Transportation Minister Ray Danyluk said. "To me there is no tradeoff, I don't apologize at all for having safer highways."

The magic number

It's all in one one-hundredth of a per cent. If you get pulled over for a Breathalyzer test and blow 0.08 per cent (that's 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood), you could be criminally charged with impaired driving. If you're just under that, you can avoid court.

How did 0.08 become the magic number to indicate drunkenness?

In 1969, based on medical evidence available at the time, 0.08 was entered into the Criminal Code of Canada as the legal limit for blood-alcohol concentration for a driver.

Back then. Canada's measurement was seen as progressive. Until 2000, when a U.S. federal law set 0.08 as the national standard for the legal limit, many states had theirs at 0.1. Decades earlier, when a few glasses of scotch at the office followed by a handful more at happy hour preceded the drive home, some had them at 0.15 based on recommendation from the American Medical Association, no less. Oh, how times have changed.

Since 0.08 entered the Criminal Code, a batch of new studies has prompted the Canadian Medical Association to recommend the legal limit be changed to 0.05.

Vision impairment starts at 0.03. Steering accuracy takes a nosedive at 0.04. Braking ability decreases by 30 per cent at 0.03. In on-road tests, ability to do tasks that required divided attention declined at 0.04.

Medical research and lobbying on the part of advocacy groups has pushed other countries to adjust their limits. Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. are the only ones in the Western world that still have a 0.08-per-cent legal limit. Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Greece have theirs set to 0.05 per cent, while Norway and Sweden's are at 0.02 per cent.

- Dakshana Bascaramurty

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About the Authors

Dakshana Bascaramurty is a national news reporter who writes about race and ethnicity. She won a 2013 National Newspaper Award in beat reporting for her coverage of changing demographics in the 905 region. Previously, she was a feature writer for Globe Life. More

Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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