Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Truth is In: Swift Justice Works

According to the latest traffic fatality statistics, there was a 40% drop in alcohol-related traffic deaths in the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) in the twelve months ending on September 30, 2011 compared to the same period a year ago.  Such a massive drop in a single year is quite noteworthy indeed.  While part of that may be due to significantly higher gas prices in 2011, the decrease in fatalities was apparently much larger in BC than the rest of the nation.  So it had to be something specific to that province as well.

About a year ago, there were significant changes to BC's impaired driving laws.  For example, under the new laws, if a driver is stopped by police and blows 0.05-0.08 BAC, the driver will immediately lose his or her license for three days for a first offense, a week for a second offense, and 30 days for a third offense.  Vehicles may be impounded for up to the same number of days each time.  If a driver blows 0.08 or higher, or refuses to be tested, he or she will lose his or her license for 90 days and the car may be impounded for up to 30 days.   There are also stiff fines and towing and storage costs, and an ignition interlock device must be installed (at the driver's expense) when the impoundment ends.  Thus, total costs can range from $600 to $4060 depending on the severity and number of offenses, and that alone can be a deterrent in itself for many people. 

These administrative roadside penalties are also quicker and easier to enforce (and process) than the Criminal Code penalties as well due to their streamlined nature.  Prior to the law change in September 2010, numerous drunk drivers (in fact the majority) were getting off relatively easily with only a 24-hour driving ban, while only relatively few were nailed with criminal charges and convictions.  Like the rest of Canada, there were fairly tough laws on the books, but enforcement of those laws was another story.  But since then, things have gotten much more consistent, and since police have spent less time processing suspects, they have had more time to catch drunk drivers.  And if you look at the data, you will see a decrease in criminal charges (despite presumably increased enforcement) since then along with the decrease in deaths.  It has been so successful that now the neighboring province of Alberta wants to adopt similar laws.

However, in November the BC Supreme Court had blocked some of these penalties from being enforced, after ruling that it violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms because there was "no adequate avenue for review." Effectively, that aspect of the law was held to be unconstitutional by Canadian standards due to lack of recourse (i.e. due process) for those busted.  The three-day license suspensions and impoundments, on the other hand, can still be enforced for those who blow in the "warn" range of 0.05-0.08, along with the rest of the penalties, but for those who blow above 0.08, things will revert back to the old law until the current law is rewritten to comply with the Charter.  It remains to be seen whether these sanctions will be reinstated, and if not, what effect this will have on traffic fatalities in the future.

In the USA, most states have at least a milder version of what BC had instituted in 2010, usually minus the vehicle impoundment.  Called "administrative license suspension/revocation" (ALS/ALR), it has generally held up in the courts provided that there is at least some semblance of due process, which is typically just an informal DMV hearing.   This type of law has proven to be highly cost-effective in reducing traffic deaths.  And while a temporary license is generally given pending the hearing, short-term impoundment of the vehicle and the driver immediately following arrest is not unprecedented (see "John's Law") and can very easily occur in some states.  But all of these laws need to be strengthened and enforced better, as alcohol-related traffic fatalities remain unacceptably high despite being at a record low.   Since we now know what works and what doesn't, what are we waiting for?

UPDATE:  On Dec 23, just in time for the holidays, the judge who struck down parts of the controversial BC law ruled that the entire law can temporarily remain in effect as written until June 30, 2012, citing public safety concerns.  The province has until that date to amend the law so it will comply with the Charter, or else it will be automatically void after that date.  Which can and should be easily done simply by creating some kind of appeals process, and confirming any failed roadside breath tests with a more accurate machine.  That said, all penalties are back on the menu for now, so drunk drivers beware.


  1. British Columbia knows how to effectively punish drunk drivers, eh.

  2. Absolutely. And they didn't need to raise the drinking age to do it either.