Albertans are 70 per cent more likely than the national average to be caught driving drunk.

But new figures from Statistics Canada also show those charged with impaired driving are less likely to be convicted or end up in jail.

The agency says the nationwide rate was 262 cases per 100,000 population in 2011, up two per cent from the previous year.

Much to the chagrin of groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the rate has now increased for the fourth time in five years, following two decades of steady decline.

"It's disappointing to see it rise, despite all the efforts at education and awareness," Wayne Kauffeldt, a national director with MADD, said in an interview Thursday.

Despite the prospect of legal challenges, Kauffeldt said his organization believes the federal government should allow random roadside testing even when police have no probable cause to suspect a driver has been drinking.

"I think public safety trumps the right to unreasonable search-and-seizure," he said.

Alberta's rate of impaired driving rose slightly faster than the national average to 450 incidents per 100,000 population. Only Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island were higher.

Of those charged across the country, 84 per cent were found guilty. Alberta shared the distinction of having the lowest conviction rate in the country with Ontario, at 81 per cent.

Greg Lepp, Alberta's assistant deputy minister of criminal justice, said the lower rate is a reflection of the fact the province has a large number of defence lawyers who specialize in impaired driving cases and lots of well-heeled accused who can afford to hire their services.

"They'll spare no expense to try to hire some lawyer to take advantage of the fact that it's a technical and difficult area of the law and try and get off," Lepp said.

To fight fire with fire, Lepp said his department has created a staff of specialist prosecutors - like those in Calgary's criminal driving unit - with the knowledge needed to get past potential legal hurdles and secure convictions.

Across the country, the proportion of drunk-driving convictions that resulted in a prison sentence continued a decade-long slide to just 8.2 per cent.

Only 6.6 per cent of drivers in Alberta who were convicted were sent to jail. The median sentence in the province of 30 days was also slightly less than the national average.

While first-time offenders rarely get jail time in Alberta unless they have caused injury or death, Lepp said the prosecutors here seek a mandatory minimum sentence of 14 days in cases of a second conviction in five years.

He said Alberta's lower incarceration rate and sentence length may reflect the fact Alberta has fewer repeat offenders coming before the courts, rather than more lenient prosecutors and judges.

Albertans convicted of driving drunk paid a median fine of $1,200, which is higher than the $1,000 national average, but reflective of the fact that median household income in the province is also 20 per cent higher.

Kauffeldt said he's concerned the incidence of impaired driving may be rising in Alberta because the public isn't sufficiently concerned about the potential consequences.

"Stiffer sentences have got to have some effect on people's decisions," he said.

"If there's a perception they'll get off easy, they may not hesitate before getting behind the wheel."

The numbers also show that drivers in Canada's rural areas remain twice as likely to be charged with impaired driving as those in cities.

Kelowna, B.C., had the dubious honour of being the drunk-driving capital of Canada, at a rate of 583 incidents per 100,000 population. At 87, Ottawa had the lowest rate among census metropolitan areas.

Edmonton had a rate of 337 incidents per 100,000 people, compared with Calgary's 201. That was two-thirds higher.

Differences in rates among cities and provinces may be indicative of varying levels of enforcement, as well as driver behaviour.

Source:  Edmonton Journal

Related story: Impaired driving in Canada, 2011


Last updated on: 2013-01-15 | Link to this post