Canada's Justice Minister says he is looking at ways to expand roadside checks in an effort to deter more people from drinking and driving.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Peter MacKay said his department is looking at measures that could allow police to demand random breath tests from drivers – even in circumstances where there are no grounds to believe a particular driver is impaired.
"We've been taking a very broad examination throughout the summer, my department has, at what other jurisdictions have done," Mr. MacKay said. "And we're always mindful, always have in the backdrop the need to respect people's rights. But a lot of emphasis is on protecting the public here given the prevalence of impaired driving."
Under current laws, police have the right to stop any vehicle at random and question the driver's sobriety. If there are reasonable grounds to suspect the person has been drinking, police can also demand a breath test to assess that person's blood-alcohol level.
Mr. MacKay said he would look at "expanding that ability" to do roadside checks. Asked whether that could mean expanding an officer's ability to demand a breath test, Mr. MacKay said it did.
"I think you're going to see, in my view, the need to revisit that issue [of random checks]. Other jurisdictions have gone that route to significant effect," he said. Australia, New Zealand and some European countries allow random breath tests.
A spokeswoman for Mr. MacKay later said the question of random breath testing has been a "regular topic of discussion" at federal, provincial and territorial meetings, and a working group was formed to examine Criminal Code provisions with respect to repeat offenders. "While we are aware of recommendations from various stakeholders with respect to random breath testing, unfortunately there is currently no consensus among provinces and territories for this policy proposal," Jennifer Gearey wrote in an e-mail.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada published a news release on its website this summer asking Mr. MacKay to implement random breath testing at the federal level. Andrew Murie, the organization's chief executive officer, said he believes a law requiring people to submit to random breath tests could reduce impairment-related deaths and injuries by 20 per cent each year.
He said the goal of the program would be to deter more people from driving under the influence of alcohol. "It's not about catching [more people], in fact we would catch way less. People do not want to get caught drinking and driving. And with random tests, the threat of being charged is much greater," Mr. Murie said.
The idea has not won universal praise, however. Abby Deshman, who directs the public safety program for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said that any legislation mandating random breath checks would likely trigger a constitutional challenge. "While there's no doubt that drinking and driving and impaired driving are serious concerns, we do question whether [giving] additional randomized power to the police would be effective in decreasing drinking and driving further," she said.
Conservative MP Peter Goldring, who was found not guilty earlier this year of refusing to provide a breath sample, said he is already concerned that drivers can face criminal charges if they refuse to take a roadside breath test – despite the fact that those tests cannot be used as evidence in court. Instead, Mr. Goldring said he would like to see criminal charges applied only to those who refuse a test that would meet evidentiary standards, such as those currently conducted in central police stations. Moving toward random breath testing, said the MP for Edmonton East, would go too far. "That's my civil right," he said. "Have some suspicion that I'm doing something wrong. Use your policing skills and your training."