Christmas, when the only acceptable red-nosed driver is the one leading Santa’s sleigh.

Actually, make that any season.

These days, drinking and driving is as socially popular as mistletoe at a cold sore clinic, and legally, it’s a fast-track to a suspended licence — and much worse, if you manage to hurt or kill someone while impaired at the wheel.

It wasn’t always the case. In the early days of motorized transport, being drunk behind the wheel was a misdemeanour at best, similar to being caught without a seatbelt now.

You might have to pay a small fine or endure a firm finger-wagging from the police, but with no legal definition of drunk in use anywhere in North America, you’d literally have to be weaving all over the road to even risk being pulled over.

It took tragedy to change that attitude.

For Canada, that tragedy took place in Calgary on the evening of Aug. 4, 1920, when a pedestrian named Mary Campbell stepped off the curb at 11 Ave. and 1 St. S.W., and was immediately run down by a powerful Nash motorcar, speeding along at the illegal pace of 50 km/h.

Campbell, the wife of William Campbell, died instantly, the violent and gruesome impact witnessed by off-duty police constable A.J. Smith, who described the car bouncing to-and-fro as it continued up 11 Ave. with the victim trapped underneath.

Campbell was thrown clear a few feet later, and the plain-clothed cop ran over to help — but it was too late. The 57-year-old Salvation Army worker had suffered fatal injuries to her head and body, and was beyond medical attention.

The car, which witnesses described as speeding and swerving before the crash, stopped further up the block — but when Smith approached, the apparently drunken driver refused to believe the plain-suited man was a cop.

As Smith tried to enter the car, the driver swore at the officer and sped away.

“I am sure the man was intoxicated at the time of the accident,” the constable said in his report.

Arrested at his home a short time later, the allegedly pickled driver turned out to be Stanton A. Nickle, a member of the affluent Nickle family, best known then for their shoe-factory roots in Winnipeg.

Police charged Nickle with manslaughter, and the Crown made history in steering the charge into uncharted legal territory.

The court was asked to consider the driver’s apparent drunkeness as a factor in a conviction, because drunk driving is illegal, and therefore automatic proof of his negligence.

It was the first time impaired driving had been linked to criminal activity in Canada, and the case made headlines, both for involving a prominent citizen and for taking drunk driving to a new level legally.

The judge said it would be up to a higher court to determine if driving drunk amounted to criminal negligence, but in the meantime, he couldn’t convict Nickle, because simply driving drunk wasn’t sufficient proof he intended to hurt anyone. Case dismissed.

But Nickle’s freedom was short lived, and on Dec. 15, 1920, Alberta’s supreme court made the ruling that changed drunk driving laws in Canada forever, while ordering a new trial for Stanton A. Nickle.

“If the accused was, in fact, drunk when he drove the automobile against the deceased, then, even though they (the jury) might think that even while drunk he was driving with reasonable care (which of course is a possible thing), still they should convict him of manslaughter because in driving an automobile while drunk he was guilty of an unlawful act,” reads the ruling.

In other words, choosing to break the law by driving drunk is criminal negligence — a historic ruling, which soon spurred changes in the law across Canada, including a 1921 federal decision to make “driving while intoxicated” a summary offence under the Criminal Code.

As for Nickle’s fate, it was two years in jail, but for manslaughter due to negligent speeding, rather than drunk driving.

The judge in his retrial said there just wasn’t enough proof that Nickle had been drinking.

But the Supreme Court had already ruled — and though breath tests and a no-tolerance attitude towards drinking and driving was still many decades away, the death of Mary Campbell meant no drunk in Canada would ever feel totally numb to the law again.

Source: Calgary Sun


Last updated on: 2014-12-23 | Link to this post