KELOWNA - The vast majority of impaired driving cases in British Columbia are no longer criminal offences — and B.C and anti-impaired driving activists are just fine with that.
Since B.C. introduced provincial regulations in 2010 allowing police to issue immediate roadside prohibitions and vehicle impoundment instead of criminal charges, the province has claimed many benefits.
It has freed up police to stay on the road to catch more impaired drivers, instead of spending hours doing criminal case paperwork.
It’s cleared B.C. courtrooms of thousands of often-complicated criminal cases.
And while 73 per cent of impaired drivers now face thousands of dollars in fines and penalties, they no longer carry the stigma and limitations of a criminal record.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving CEO Andrew Murie is fine with that because he’s looking at the one statistic that matters to him: A reduction in lives lost.
“We focus on the death rate that fell by half and has maintained that low rate,” he says. “No (other province) has been able to do that in Canada, and globally, as well.”
Statistics provided by the provincial government show a drop of nearly 46 per cent in the average number of yearly fatal crashes involving alcohol since administrative penalties were imposed, compared to the previous five years. It should be noted that all fatal crashes combined also declined 14 per cent over the same period and impaired driving across the country has dropped significantly in that same period.
In 2006, alcohol was involved in 131 crashes involving fatalities in B.C.; in 2015, that number was 69. Murie says that's largely because British Columbians know the penalties and perceive them as tough and not worth the risk.
"Having the vehicle taken away is a greater deterrent than a criminal record,” he says.
This should be of particular note for Kelowna drivers, who were singled out by Statistics Canada for having the highest ratio of impaired drivers per capita than all but one other city in Canada.
That study also noted that just 27 per cent of impaired drivers in B.C. find their way into a courtroom for due process and that statistic is from 2011.
Now that the Supreme Court of Canada has upheld the B.C. approach, Murie expects — and is pushing for — other provinces to take it on. He says he is aware of two other provinces that are studying it.
As the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles, Sam MacLeod is the man who authorizes vehicle impoundment and can order drivers off the road if they are caught driving while impaired.
MacLeod says criminal charges are, of course, still available to police, but suspects they only use it when it matters most — in accident investigations or for repeat offenders.
He agrees with Murie that a reduction in fatalities is the number that matters.
“This was looked at purely from the perspective of alcohol-related fatalities,” he says. “We have seen alcohol-related fatalities go down… so people are getting the message.”
He’s been in the role since 2012, and as a former police officer, he knows the advantages for cops on the ground. Under the criminal code, processing an impaired driver takes a minimum four hours and another officer to take additional breath samples. And that doesn’t include time in court.
“The idea with this program was to keep police officers on the road,” he says. “They don’t arrest people and typically they are allowed to go on their way. (The immediacy) has proven to be very beneficial."
“If I was a police officer — and I was for 29 years — and had this alternative and could stay on the highway to take more people off the road, I would have taken it,” he says. “That is what police are doing.”
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