How far can society go to prevent the tragedies caused by impaired driving?

Manitoba Public Insurance (MPI) can suspend someone’s drivers licence for three months or more if MPI has “received information (your) use of alcohol may interfere with safely operating a motor vehicle.”

The fact you have never been charged or convicted of an alcohol-related driving offence does not matter. Even if you have a spotless driving record with plenty of merits, you will still lose your licence under Section 18 (3) of the Drivers and Vehicles Act.

Drivers and Vehicles Act

This law states that if you enrol in a detoxification program at the Health Sciences Centre, doctors at the intake unit are obligated to provide MPI with this information. Then MPI automatically suspends your licence until you can prove that your use of alcohol will not interfere with safely operating a motor vehicle.

It’s the same thing for people who are susceptible to illnesses like heart attacks, strokes and epilepsy. 

This raised a plethora of arguments when I informed some of my fellow citizens about this relatively unknown Manitoba statute.

Some people said that addiction is different from the other illnesses I cited. They said that alcoholism can be controlled by a person using simple will power.

These people worried that a person may not be able to control whether they have a heart attack or an epileptic fit while they are in control of a 2,000-pound moving weapon. But by the same token, the individual — alcoholic or not — who gets behind a wheel sober is at no greater danger of causing an accident than any other driver.

Other people got into the argument that a citizen is “innocent until proven guilty,” at least in Canada.

But not in this case, it seems.

An individual’s licence is suspended automatically but they can get it back after an assessment is done by the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba. This takes about a month and requires the person to provide the names of four individuals who can attest the person is “not likely to drive while impaired.”  

This is not the kind of information one would normally want to share, even with close friends.   

If the person passes this trial, he or she must then “prove sobriety” every three months for a year, and then every six months for another year after that.

Is this right?  Is it fair?

Some people get real heated about this because we’re entering into “big brother” territory, complete with thought policing.

“The state cannot punish an individual by predicting they might do something when they have not,” goes the saying — no matter how “educated” that guess may be.

And then we get into equal treatment under the law.

During a recent check stop, 17 drivers lost their licences for 24 hours for “alcohol-related tiered administrative roadside suspensions” during an average check stop operation.

After that 24-hour period, those drivers were free to drive again without any hassles.

We all know people who get drunk and drive and get away with it. There are teetotallers who sometimes get behind a wheel while over the limit.

Some argue that these people are treated much better than those who seek help for a problem and end up with problems they never anticipated.

Act deters addicts from seeking help

Which brings us to the deeper argument about people who are discouraged from seeking help, because they need their licences for work. 

A truck or bus or taxi driver cannot lose their licence for even a month, and I assume that most of these people know they absolutely cannot drink and drive and get away with it.

Heck, how many of us who live in this frozen prairie wasteland, where a motor vehicle is the essential element of our car culture, would seek help if we knew that doing so would have us waiting for buses in –30 C weather?

Everybody agrees that anything that prevents drunk driving and all of the carnage and tragedy it can cause is a good thing.  

And I guess that none of us would want a guy who checked into the Health Science Centre for treatment on Monday to pilot a plane with us inside to Toronto on Wednesday before they had gone through treatment. But anybody who has seen the movie “Flight” knows that the MPI regulation would not have kept Denzel Washington out of the captain’s chair.

It only penalizes the people who seek help and discourages many people who need such help from getting it.

Preemptive punishments not the answer

The consequences of drunk driving are horrific. The lost lives, life-altering injuries, shattered families and emotional toll are too much to bear. It is tempting to argue that anything that can prevent a tragedy the likes of those caused by drunk driving is acceptable.

But it's important to remember addictions are medical conditions, and their physical manifestations can be controlled by treatment. Drinking and driving can be controlled by a simple choice, which many alcoholics make, like calling a cab or taking a bus. Or having a designated driver on hand.

We know that not all alcoholics do this. But this is not the kind of choice that all heart attack or stroke victims can make. 

The bottom line in Canada is that a drivers licence is a privilege, not a right, so there are certain restrictions on their use. We need laws to govern a driver's behaviour —  to prevent speeding, for example. But, generally, we have to catch people in the act of speeding before we punish them.

We still live in a society in which a person is innocent until proven guilty. The mere fact that a person may be “more likely” to commit a crime doesn’t give MPI or society the right to enforce a penalty on them by predicting their behaviour.

Or does it?

Source: CBC News Manitoba


Last updated on: 2015-01-09 | Link to this post