Should Ontario overhaul how it charges drunk drivers?

The head of Mother's Against Drunk Driving is calling on the Ontario government to overhaul how it charges people caught driving drunk and to implement partial decriminalization, a change the province appears open to considering.

Head of MADD Canada says province should follow B.C.'s lead, partially decriminalize impaired driving charges

Since B.C. implemented new legislation on how drivers are charged when caught under the influence, road deaths related to impaired drugs or alcohol dropped by 50 per cent. (File Photo/CBC)

The head of Mother's Against Drunk Driving is calling on the Ontario government to overhaul how it charges people caught driving drunk and to implement partial decriminalization, a change the province appears open to considering. 

Andrew Murie, CEO of MADD Canada, told Ontario Today on Thursday that partial decriminalization of driving under the influence charges reduces deaths caused by drunk driving.

Since British Columbia introduced decriminalization legislation in 2010, police officers have been offering people caught driving under the influence for the first time — as long as they have not caused damage to property or injured anyone — the option of choosing administrative sanctions or criminal charges. 

In a few years, the number of road deaths related to impaired driving had fallen dramatically. 

"The focus of that program is solely on things that might rehab and reduce recidivism, where the criminal code focuses more on a punishment," Murie said.

"Immediately behaviour changed [in B.C.]," he added. "People were continuing to go out and purchasing alcohol, but when it came to the actual act of driving their behaviours changed."

Processing administrative sanctions is also much quicker than processing criminal charges and sending someone to court, so the change is saving money in courts and in police services, he said.

What's working

In B.C, if the offender chooses administrative charges after a roadside breathalyzer test, their license is suspended for 90 days, their vehicle is impounded for 30 days, they are issued a $500 fine and enrolled in a responsible driver program and ignition interlock program.

In Ontario, drivers caught under the influence are charged under the criminal code and face a 90-day license suspension and a car impoundment of seven days. If found guilty offenders also have to enrol in the ignition interlock program.

Many provinces simply suspend licenses after a charge, instead of impounding vehicles, Murie said.

But people will still take the risk and go back on the roads if their license is suspended. What has the biggest effect on them is impounding their vehicles because they can't drive, Murie said.

"And then they wake up the next morning and realize, not only can they not go to work, they can't make any family commitments, they have a lot of [explaining] to do. So that swift, quick punishment really is a determining factor," he said.

Provinces exploring changes 

B.C's legislation is paving the way for other provinces. So far, Alberta and Saskatchewan are looking to follow B.C.'s lead.

While there's no word on specific legislation in Ontario, the province appears to be exploring decriminalization of impaired driving as well.

An emailed statement from the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General said the Ontario government has implemented a number of legislative changes over the last several years to keep roads safe from people who drive while under the influence. 

"At the September Federal-Provincial-Territorial meeting, we were pleased that the federal government committed to working with all provinces to explore a model law regarding the creation of administrative enforcement regimes for alcohol and drug impaired driving."

A 'breath of fresh air'

Mike Harrington, a retired police officer who lives in Pembroke, Ont., told Ontario Today he's intrigued by the idea of partial decriminalization. 

"I think it's a breath of fresh air in terms of re-evaluating what we've been doing about drinking and driving over the years," he said.

"We really haven't changed a whole lot, other than some procedures and penalties. A fresh look at anything like that is always worth a look."

But Harrington said he has some misgivings. Police, he said, aren't judges and don't make decisions like judges.

Being able to suspend a license and impound a car based on roadside screening puts that decision-making into their hands, and does not give the people charged due process, he said.