A car totalled from a rollover crash lies in front of EMS personnel.

Postmedia file photo

Despite years of public messaging about the dangers of drinking and driving, Canada ranks No. 1 among 19 wealthy countries for percentage of roadway deaths linked to alcohol impairment, according to a new study.

The finding by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control should serve as a warning to lawmakers that new strategies are needed to combat impaired driving, which remains the top criminal cause of death in Canada, safety advocates say.

“The CDC does the best studies; their information is undebatable,” said Andy Murie, CEO of MADD Canada. “It’s a wake-up call. We need to do more.”

The study found that while fewer people were dying from motor vehicle crashes in Canada (the crash death rate in 2013 was 5.4 per 100,000 people, a drop of 43 per cent from 2000), the proportion of deaths linked to alcohol impairment was 34 per cent, higher than any of the other countries in the survey.

A graph detailing the percentage of alcohol-related vehicle deaths on a per-country basis.The United States came in next at 31 per cent, followed by Australia (30 per cent), and France (29 per cent). Countries with the lowest percentage of fatal crashes tied to alcohol were Israel (3.2 per cent), Japan (6.2 per cent), and Austria (6.8 per cent).

Murie said one measure that would go a long way to reducing impaired-driving deaths is random roadside breath tests. MADD Canada estimates the introduction of mandatory screening on roadways, which already exists in several European countries and Australia, would have a major deterrent effect — reducing impaired-driving fatalities by 20 per cent.

Random breath testing by police, however, is an “extraordinary” measure that would have to pass Charter scrutiny and requires “compelling” justification, said Micheal Vonn, policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

Canadians are guaranteed protection from unreasonable search and seizure, so such a measure would require proof that existing strategies to combat impaired driving are not working and that mandatory screenings make a difference, she said.

Conservative MP Steven Blaney, the former public safety minister, introduced a private member’s bill earlier this year, Bill C-226, that includes a provision allowing for mandatory roadside screening. The bill also would impose a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for impaired driving causing death (something MADD Canada is less enthused about).

The bill has gone through second reading in Ottawa and is scheduled to undergo review by a parliamentary committee in the fall.

Police pull drivers over as part of Ontario's anti-drinking and driving RIDE program. (Postmedia file photo)

Police pull drivers over as part of Ontario’s anti-drinking and driving RIDE program.
(Postmedia file photo)

A Justice Canada spokesman said Monday the government is committed to exploring ways to address impaired driving but does not support Bill C-226’s proposal for mandatory minimum penalties.

Whatever form the bill takes, victims’ families say it is clear existing measures are inadequate.

“The law needs to change. This is long overdue,” Grace Pesa said following the bill’s introduction. The Calgary mother lost her 20-year-old son, Francis, on New Year’s Day 2014 when a Dodge Ram crossed the centre line and crashed into his BMW.

Murie said MADD Canada would also like to see all provinces finally adopt administrative penalties related to impaired driving.

Currently, it is a Criminal Code offence to drive with a blood alcohol concentration of over 0.08. Every province, except Quebec, has introduced supplementary laws that allow police to impound vehicles, suspend licences and apply other administrative sanctions against drivers whose blood alcohol levels don’t quite reach the criminal threshold, but fall in the “warning” range of 0.05 to 0.08.

Asked if he would like to see the criminal threshold of 0.08 reduced to 0.05, as has happened in several European countries, Murie said it’s not something MADD Canada is publicly pushing for at the moment — the political will isn’t quite there yet.

Indeed, when the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board released a report in 2013 calling for all states to lower the threshold for drunk driving to 0.05, the American Beverage Institute called the recommendation “ludicrous” because it would unfairly target moderate drinkers and “criminalize perfectly responsible behaviour.”

Police agencies, meanwhile, have been trying to combat impaired driving through a mix of enforcement and sharing of personal stories from officers who’ve witnessed the aftermath of fatal accidents.

On the RCMP website, Cpl. Janet Leblanc of Nova Scotia wrote about two buddies who had gone drinking at a bar and then were later involved in separate collisions. One survived and the other did not.

“I will always remember the pain on this man’s face when I had to tell him about his friend, and I would love to know if this tragic event has prevented him from drinking and driving again,” Leblanc wrote. “Because if this sad event couldn’t stop someone from drinking and driving, what could?”

Source: National Post