Calgary Herald
June 5, 2020

The Alberta government is proposing new penalties for impaired drivers but first-time offenders could avoid a criminal change if newly tabled legislation becomes law.

Bill 21, the Provincial Administrative Penalties Act, which received first reading in the legislative assembly on Thursday, would grant police the ability to give first-time offenders with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more a new fine of $1,000, a mandatory education course and a 30-day vehicle seizure in addition to existing penalties of a 90-day licence suspension and 12 months using an interlock system which prevents a car from starting if the driver has been drinking.

However, if there are no aggravating circumstances, such as excessive impairment, bodily harm or death, officers won’t charge the driver criminally.

The government says these changes and the creation of a new government branch, SafeRoads AB, to deal with the penalties will free up time for both courts and police and keep more people safe.

Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer said Thursday this type of legislation has been proven effective in reducing crashes and saving lives.

“It also deters the behaviour. We’re not decriminalizing, the Criminal Code is there, the ability to use criminal charges is on the table. You injure someone, you kill someone while impaired driving, criminal charges are there immediately. If you don’t change your behaviour, criminal charges are there,” he said prior to the legislation being tabled.

Under the new roadside sanctions program, slated to start at the end of 2020, anyone caught with a blood alcohol concentration over 0.08 for a second time will face criminal charges along with a $2,000 fine on top of progressively increasing existing penalties. A third offence will also mean a $2,000 fine and mandatory use of an interlock system for life.

The government estimates police investigation, documentation, and testimony often consumes five hours to eight hours or more per file. The new administrative penalties are expected to take an average of an hour or less and free up about eight per cent of court time and eliminate approximately 1,200 full-day trials.

Dale McFee, chief of the Edmonton Police Service, said the new legislation is supported by the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police because it allows for a better use of resources while keeping people safe and maintaining the court option.

“This is a positive step forward. This will free up obviously a considerable amount of court time,” he said Thursday.

SafeRoads AB will be made up of specially-trained officials required to resolve non-criminal matters in 30 days. Under the new system, drivers would be able to go online to pay fines, request time to pay or request a review of the sanction.

“Right now criminal defence lawyers can delay a trial for over a year,” Schweitzer said. “The data shows if you have certainty in the result it helps deter the behaviour.”

Alberta would become the third province in the country to have a similar system of administrative fines following British Columbia and Manitoba.

“The rates of impaired driving have dropped by 36 per cent (in British Columbia) from 2011 to 2018 and the number of impaired driving fatalities have fallen by 54 per cent from 2010 to 2018,” Schweitzer said. “These are significant results, saving lives, clearing up backlogs in courtrooms, getting police back on the streets and getting impaired drivers off the road.”

In a statement, MADD Canada CEO Andrew Murie said the organization is in favour of the legislation.

“These streamlined administrative options for certain offenders have proven very effective at reducing impaired driving and saving lives in other provinces,” he said.

NDP justice critic Kathleen Ganley said she is pleased the government introduced the new model.

“The evidence is clear, if properly implemented, this model can save lives,” she said. “We are still examining the legislation, because the details are critical to the models of success. My hope is to see strong immediate sanctions, and an appeal mechanism consistent with procedural fairness and the gravity of the interests involved.”

Also in the legislation, new drivers caught with any drugs or alcohol in their system will face a $200 fine on top of the penalties that are already in place, including a 30-day driving suspension and seven-day vehicle seizure.

All drivers who have a blood alcohol concentration of more than 0.05 but below the criminal level of 0.08 will get a $300 fine on top of a three-day licence suspension and three-day vehicle seizure. A second offence means a fine of $600, a 15-day suspension and losing your vehicle for seven days. For a third offence the fine jumps to $1,200.

The government is also legislating that commercial drivers are to have zero drugs or alcohol in their system while on the job. The fine for that ranges from $300 to $1,200 with a licence suspicion from three to 30 days.

Pay your tickets online in 2021

Meanwhile, starting in late 2021 the government will also be depending on SafeRoads AB to deal with millions of traffic tickets through its online system. Schweitzer estimated that would divert nearly two million tickets away from Alberta courtrooms.