From their earliest beginnings ‘automobiles’ spawned laws attempting to address the dangers posed by drunk driving. In 1872, English law prescribed imprisonment as punishment for being drunk while driving a vehicle powered by a steam engine. According to Leonard Evans, the internationally renowned traffic safety expert, “the role of alcohol in traffic safety has produced more activity, literature, passion, and controversy than any other safety topic.”
Perhaps nowhere on earth, recently, has such ‘activity, passion, and controversy’ been more closely interwoven and dramatically highlighted than here in British Columbia as the result of a crash on May 17, 2008 on a rural road on a sunny day in the late afternoon. Four-year-old Alexa Middelaer was feeding horses with her aunt at the side of the road when a speeding vehicle operated by a then 56-year-old driver ‘plowed into them.’ The child died in hospital, her aunt sustained serious injuries, and her grandparents waiting in their car parked on the road’s shoulder were also injured.
After an extensive police investigation involving an intricate undercover operation aimed at extracting a confession about the amount of alcohol she had consumed prior to the crash, and a highly publicized trial, the driver was convicted in July 2010 of impaired driving and dangerous driving, and sentenced on November 12th to two-and-a-half years imprisonment. The Middelaers have become highly respected and persuasive advocates for change: tougher rules to get drunk drivers out of their cars and off the road, more law enforcement, and stiffer penalties.
The publicity took relatively quick effect. On September 20, 2010, new immediate roadside prohibition rules turned British Columbia into the toughest anti-drinking and driving jurisdiction in North America. While blowing over .05 could already result in an immediate 24-hour roadside suspension, the new rules added a host of more serious and costly consequences.
BC’s then Solicitor General justified the new rules on the basis of statistics showing a rise in impaired driving and as necessary to achieve its goal, honouring Alexa Middelaer, of reducing alcohol-impaired driving fatalities by 35% by the end of 2013.
Six weeks into the new regime and it appeared to be working. The media reported energized enforcement, the papers filled with debate and discussion, and British Columbians drank less alcohol in pubs and restaurants. Indeed, by early October the BC Restaurant and Food Association was already reporting business losses of anywhere from 10 to 40 percent.
Then, on the day that sentencing hearing began for the driver in the Middlaer case, the new Solicitor General, Rich Coleman announced he was considering changes to the new rules to help mitigate some of their “unintended consequences” especially on BC’s bars and restaurants. One government official reportedly said, “… People don’t understand they can go in and have a couple of glasses of wine with dinner and still leave and be okay.”
Comments have filled the papers and the internet like: ‘Out to lunch’, ‘Confusion reigns’, ‘What gives?’ and “Let’s vote in favour of life.”
What is clear is that we have just witnessed a major and irreversible change in the rules of the road.