Last week, Justice Jon Sigurdson of the British Columbia Supreme Court struck down a narrow provision of the province’s tough anti-drunk-driving law. The court found that automatic penalties for drivers who failed a breath test with an approved testing device — meaning a blood alcohol content (BAC) higher than .08 — went too far given that no appeal is possible.

Drivers who fail, face immediate suspension of their driving privileges, the impounding of their car, heavy fines and will almost certainly be required to have an ignition interlock device installed in their car, at their own expense. In total, on top of losing your license for 90 days, you would also be out of pocket more than $4,000. The court held that while this was a legitimate application of provincial safety laws (and not criminal law, which is the federal government’s domain), the possible consequences were sufficiently severe as to require some form of appeals process.

Interestingly, Justice Sigurdson did not find that the same logic applied to those who are tested by an approved screening device and register in the “warn” range — a BAC of less than .08, but greater than .05. Blowing in the warn range still means losing your car for at least three days (perhaps as long as 30 days, if the driver is a repeat offender), but the financial costs are much less. The court held that these sanctions were sufficiently mild as to not necessitate an appeals process, and also noted, “evidence supports that driving-related skills are significantly impaired at a [.05] blood-alcohol level.”

Maybe so. Certainly politicians agree — Ontario has already imposed non-criminal punitive sanctions similar (though less severe) to B.C. on drivers who also blow between .05 and .08. Alberta is considering enacting a similar law.

Such laws have been compared to getting pulled over for speeding in an 80 kilometre zone while you’re only doing 50, because the police are afraid you might eventually end up going faster than the limit. But there probably is a case for .05 BAC being the cutoff — or even zero, for that matter. No one disputes that alcohol impairs judgment, and that driving while intoxicated is dangerous. One can dispute how much of a difference there is between .05 and .08, but surely we can all grant that when it comes to drinking before driving, less is better than more.

But what isn’t clear is why provinces (and judges) that believe there is clear evidence in favour of treating a .05 BAC as the limit where someone is too dangerous to continue driving aren’t screaming bloody murder for the federal government to adjust the legal limit for the crime of drunk driving down to that same level. Sure, someone who has surpassed more than .08 might be a bigger danger than someone at .05, but as Justice Sigurdson has noted, “driving-related skills are significantly impaired” at the lower limit.

So where’s the campaign to lower the limit to .05? It doesn’t matter what the rest of us think: If the politicians in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta care enough about quasi-drunk drivers to take their cars away in the short term — and in the interests of public safety, no less — then they surely care enough to demand that Ottawa slip a change to the drunk driving laws into all their other planned amendments to the Criminal Code.

Who would really object to that? People might grumble about having to skip the two beers after their nightly wing night with the boys, but drunk driving is one of those social issues that no one will want to be on the wrong side of. They might grumble about it privately, but no one would object publicly. And given how tough-on-crime the federal Tories are feeling lately, they’d be hard pressed to refuse.

Personally, I’d be content if they left the legal limit at .08 and focused more on dealing with the chronic drunk drivers who often rack up a dozen or more convictions before finally killing someone. But even more so, I’d like to see some logical consistency from our elected leaders. If .05 is the limit beyond which drivers are unsafe, then it needs to be the law. If drivers are only dangerous past .08, then politicians should stop grandstanding and leave the other drivers alone. This issue is too important to try and have it both ways.

Related story: Lower limits make for dangerous roads

Source: Matt Gurney National Post


Last updated on: 2013-02-10 | Link to this post