The revelation that federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould is toying with the idea of lowering the legal blood-alcohol limit for drivers has caught some people off-guard.
After all, Canada's limit of 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood has been the same for almost 50 years, and during that time the annual number of police-reported incidents involving alcohol-impaired driving has fallen steadily. The reported drunk-driving rate is two-thirds lower than it was in 1986, according to Statistics Canada.
The concern these days is often more about drug-impaired driving and distracted driving, both of which are on the rise. Last year, the Ontario Provincial Police reported that road deaths from distracted driving were double the number of deaths from impaired driving.
As for drug-impaired driving, the number of reported incidents doubled between 2009 and 2015, according to StatsCan. With Ottawa forging ahead with the legalization of recreational marijuana, there are concerns those numbers will climb.
So why did Ms. Wilson-Raybould write to her provincial and territorial counterparts in May to let them know she is seriously thinking about lowering the blood-alcohol limit from .08 to .05?
It's simple, really. In spite of the decrease in incidents, drunk driving is still Canada's leading criminal cause of death and injury. And the science behind the decision to set the blood-alcohol limit at .08 is arguably outdated.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould says that the current limit was set by Parliament in 1969 under the belief that a blood-alcohol content of .08 would make drivers twice as likely to be in fatal crash, compared to alcohol-free drivers.
In fact, says the Minister, new research indicates that .08 makes it at least three times more likely you will be killed in a crash.
It's not hard to find data to support her claim. One study done in the U.S. in 2002 indicated that a driver aged 35-49 with a blood-alcohol content of .08 was three-and-a-half times more likely to be involved in a crash compared to someone sober. People aged 21-34 were almost four times as likely to be in a crash.
Other data show that alcohol not only increases the odds of an accident, but also increases its severity. One study found that a person with a BAC of 0.15 was 22 times more likely to be in a crash, and 200 times more likely to die, than a sober person.
In short, if you want drunk drivers to be "only" twice as dangerous as sober ones, the blood-alcohol limit should be closer to .05.
The Minister's argument is further bolstered by the fact that many countries, including most of the European Union, have lowered their limit to .05. As well, all provinces except Quebec have begun imposing administrative penalties on drivers caught with a BAC of between .05 and .08.
Canada, along with U.S., is among the few nations that haven't reduced the criminal limit to .05. This may help explain why, in 2015, 34 per cent of road deaths in this country involved booze – the worst outcome among wealthy countries, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Of course, a lower limit is not the whole story. Some countries that have the .05 limit aren't much better off when it comes to the percentage of road deaths involving alcohol. Australia and France, for instance, clock in at 30 and 29 per cent, respectively.
Clearly, lowering the limit can't work on its own. Another key factor in the reduction of impaired-driving rates is the presence of police enforcement and stiff penalties. Ottawa has, in fact, tabled a bill that will increase penalties and give police more authority to stop suspected drinkers.
There is also evidence that many of the worst accidents are caused by repeat offenders, which means that sentencing and the post-release monitoring of offenders are also critical factors.
There are potential drawbacks, too. Restaurant owners claim it will hurt their sales, though that seems at odds with the fact that European restaurants and bars seem to be doing just fine.
More seriously, there are concerns a lower limit would further clog up Canada's courts, since impaired driving already constitutes more than 10 per cent of criminal cases.
But there is an equal chance a lower limit will actually reduce court cases, because people will simply stop drinking over the limit if they know that a third glass of wine could get them a criminal record. In Ireland, the number of charges fell 65 per cent in the years after it brought in the .05 limit, according to the Minister.
All in all, it's hard to imagine how a lower limit could be anything but positive over all. Its effectiveness is supported by the data and by the experiences of other countries. And, thanks to the provinces that have begun enforcing the .05 limit as a non-criminal offence, it's largely already here.
Ottawa is on the right road with this, and should see it through.