Drinking and driving and the closely related topic of youth drinking are news again. On September 1st, under the headline, “Alcohol-related deaths are on the rise this year…” one national newspaper reported on a statement issued the previous day by the Ontario Provincial Police noting increases in fatalities from road collisions—up 5.4%, fatalities in which alcohol was a factor— up 38.5%, and fatalities in which not wearing seat belts was a factor —up 32.7%.
The good news (depending on your perspective) was that the other reported increases were in criminal charges (in Ontario, at least): 25 street racing charges laid as of July 31, 2007, 24.1% more speeding charges, 36.6% more seat belt charges and 11% more impaired driving charges. More law enforcement usually correlates with better crash statistics, which leads to the possibility that without more charges the crash statistics might have been even higher—a thoroughly discouraging and depressing thought.
On September 5, 2007 the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA)—a national organization working to reduce alcohol and drug-related harm—released a report entitled, Substance Abuse in Focus: Youth in Canada. This report noted that the age of initiation for first-time alcohol and drug use is now around 14 or younger; an unusually high level of cannabis use by young Canadians compared with their peers in other countries, and the rise in hazardous drinking by those under 25.
The substance abuse study also noted the risks of these behaviours especially intoxication, which is “often associated with acute harms… [including] poisoning and overdose, and intentional and unintentional injuries such as traffic accidents and falls. Indeed, driving while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs remains a major problem in Canada. In 2001, 25% of drivers aged 19 and younger who died behind the wheel and were tested were over the legal alcohol limit. Recent provincial school surveys found self-reports of drinking and driving among students with a driver’s license ranging between 9% and19%, and 16% and 26% for cannabis use and driving.” A copy of the full report is online at www.ccsa.ca.
The appropriate legal and law enforcement response to this behaviour was the subject of a September 10 editorial in The Montreal Gazette entitled, Canadian are too lenient with drinking drivers quoting Robert Solomon, a University of Western Ontario law professor and legal adviser for MADD, proposing a “major overhaul of Canada’s impaired driving laws.” Solomon argues that federal impaired driving laws are “ now so distorted by technical defenses that police officers often will not lay a criminal charge even if there is evidence” which amounts to, he said, “de-facto decriminalization of the country’s impaired-driving laws.”
Charge rates for impaired-driver arrests are low in Canada —less than half that of the US. Less than 25% of drunk drivers who kill another person are charged with impaired driving causing death. Only 4% of impaired drivers who injure another person are charged with impaired driving causing bodily harm. Professor Solomon also says that convictions on the serious charges that are laid are also too few. Google Montreal Gazette Solomon for the full editorial.