St. Albert Gazette
June 6, 2020

A proposed provincial law would crank up fines for drunk driving and make it easier for first-time offenders to avoid jail – steps analysts say could make the streets safer for everyone.

The province passed first reading of the Provincial Administrative Penalties Act June 4.

Right now, any driver caught with a blood alcohol level at or over the federal limit of 0.08 in Alberta has their car seized for three days, their licence suspended for 90 days, and is banned from driving for a year unless their car has an interlock device that prevents it from starting if they’ve been drinking. They’re also charged under the Criminal Code, which means a court appearance and possible jail time.

Under the proposed law, the driver would instead be fined $1,000, have their car seized for 30 days and licence suspended for 90 days, be required to attend an impaired driving education course, and be forced to have an interlock device on their car for a year.

Repeat offenders would face higher fines, longer suspensions and criminal charges. First-timers would not be charged criminally if they did not cause bodily harm.

Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer said this proposed law would not decriminalize impaired driving.

“We’ll pursue criminal charges against repeat offenders. If you injure someone or someone dies to impaired driving, you will face criminal charges.”

B.C. brought in similar changes to its impaired-driving laws in 2010 and saw its impaired driving deaths drop 54 per cent from 2010 to 2018 as a result, Schweitzer said.

“This policy saves lives, full stop.”

Schweitzer said these changes would also free up thousands of hours of court and police time, allowing cops to spend more time patrolling instead of filling out criminal charges.

“This is smart policy and should have been done years ago.”

The proposed law also cranks up penalties for other impaired drivers.

Graduated licence holders would have to pay a $200 fine if they had any drugs or alcohol in their systems in addition to the current penalties of a 30-day license suspension and weeklong car seizure, with elevated fines on subsequent offences. Commercial drivers would have to be drug-and-alcohol free while on the job or risk a $300 fine and three-day licence suspension, with bigger fines and suspensions for repeat offenders. Non-criminal impairment (BAC of 0.05 to 0.079) would result in a $300 to $1,200 fine on top of the current license suspensions and car seizures.

The law also proposes to create a system in 2021 that would let drivers pay for or dispute traffic tickets online instead of in court.

Short, sharp shock

B.C. did similar reforms to these in 2010 to great effect, said Tim Stockwell, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria. His research found the changes led to a 40-per-cent drop in fatalities, a 23-per-cent drop in injuries, and a 20-per-cent drop in property damage related to drunk driving in two years.

“It’s the idea of a short, sharp shock,” Stockwell said, when asked why the change worked.

Criminology research shows really high penalties don’t deter criminals, as police are reluctant to use such a metaphorical big stick, he explained. Use a small stick/penalty quickly and consistently, as is the case with B.C.’s automatic fines, and you get behavioural change.

“You need certainty and you need celerity,” Stockwell said.

The new law should free up court and police time in Alberta and make for safer roads, said St. Albert-area lawyer Rory Ziv. It’s not good news for defence lawyers like him, though, as much of their work comes from impaired driving cases.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada has been lobbying for these changes and was thrilled to see them implemented, said CEO Andrew Murie. This law offers immediate penalties for those who fail a breath test and puts the focus on preventing repeat offences.

“We honestly believe once this is fully passed and implemented it will make a serious dent in the number of impaired driving deaths in Alberta.”

The bill will be up for further readings in the legislature later this summer.