As Canada prepares to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, public safety advocates are concerned about how the changes will impact impaired driving across the country.
And if the country’s record on drunk driving is anything to go by, the worry is legitimate, as Canada stands as one of the worst offenders when it comes to traffic deaths involving alcohol among high-income countries.
According to a report from the World Health Organization, Canada is an international laggard when it comes to curbing drunk driving, with 34 per cent of its road traffic deaths involving alcohol, enough to put Canada in second place among WHO-listed countries. Only Uruguay was found to have a higher rate at 38 per cent of deaths involving alcohol, whereas the United States came in at 31 per cent and the United Kingdom at 17 per cent.
“We have a terrible record in terms of impaired driving,” said Robert Solomon, professor of law at the University of Western Ontario and legal policy director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), to Postmedia.
Solomon spoke earlier this year as the federal government considers ramping up regulations against drunk driving, including lowering the blood alcohol limit from .08 to .05 and allowing for random roadside breathalyzer testing (also called mandatory screening) by police.
MADD supports the federal initiatives, arguing that the current law, which holds that police may only demand a roadside breath sample if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that the driver has been drinking, doesn’t serve as a meaningful deterrent.
“The problem is that people don’t always exhibit obvious signs of intoxication, particularly those who routinely drink and drive. As a result, the majority of drinking drivers go undetected at sobriety checkpoints,” reads a recent MADD press release.
“In fact, data indicates a person would have to drive impaired, on average, once a week, every week, for more than 3 years before being charged with impaired driving offence, and for more than 6 years before being convicted,” MADD says.
In April 2017, the federal government introduced Bill C-46, which along with the marijuana legislation Bill C-45 is currently awaiting a reading in the Senate in January.
Yet, some civic advocates see the proposed changes surrounding impaired driving to be contrary to personal freedoms guaranteed under the Charter of Rights.
Ottawa criminal lawyer Michael Spratt claims that the changes would shift the burden of proof from law enforcement onto to the accused.
“One of the things the accused actually has to do (according to) the legislation to prove their innocence is they have to call a toxicologist to testify about what they drank, when they drank it, and make sure the readings sort of match up with the drinking pattern,” Spratt said, to CTV News.
Impaired driving has been on a steady decline over the past three decades, with Statistics Canada reporting 72,039 impaired driving accidents in 2015. That amounts to 201 incidents per 100,000 population, which marks a 30-year low.
At the same time, Solomon points out that while people in Germany consume 33 per cent more alcohol per capita than Canadians do, their alcohol-related crash rates are five times less smaller than ours.
“We can do better,” says Solomon.