Temporary suspensions save lives

The Wildrose Party is offside in its opposition to tougher drunk-driving legislation.

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The Wildrose Party is offside in its opposition to tougher drunk-driving legislation.

The rate of impairment among Alberta drivers is falling (as it is across Canada) but the death toll remains far too high.

Tougher laws could save more lives.

Premier Alison Redford is seriously studying the path that British Columbia has followed to make its roads safer.

B.C. passed a law that lets police temporarily suspend licences and impound vehicles of drivers with a blood-alcohol level between 0.05 and 0.08 per cent.

The results were stunning.

In the nine months between last October and this June, traffic fatalities involving drunk drivers dropped 48 per cent — to 44 deaths from the average 84 in the same months the previous five years.

The survey period was admittedly short. The change may not continue at that rate in British Columbia and might not be repeated in Alberta.

But nobody in either province can argue that lives lost and families shattered by drunk drivers remain far too high.

Every reasonable option must be pursued to drive that death toll towards zero.

The quickest way would be to make it illegal to drive with any alcohol in your system.

Some European nations have successfully tried that approach. That day may come in Alberta but it seems a long way off right now.

Alcohol is a big part of our culture and our economy. The hospitality industry depends on selling spirits. Beer and sports are ingrained in our culture.

Any campaign for zero alcohol tolerance among drivers would face a well-funded and highly orchestrated campaign from the liquor trade.

A beachhead in one province is an incentive for others to follow, so opposition to block it would be aggressively supported by alcohol-dependent enterprises from beyond our borders.

The British Columbia plan is a worthy half-measure. Under that law, people stopped by police with a blood-alcohol level between 0.05 and 0.08 per cent have their licences temporarily suspended and their vehicles impounded.

They don’t face criminal charges, but may face expensive costs getting themselves home and paying impound fees.

Is that a fair tradeoff to make our roads and highways safer?

I say yes.

The 0.08 blood-alcohol level for criminality is an arbitrary one. Some people show marked signs of driving impairment at higher or lower levels.

At 0.06 or 0.07 per cent, you are probably not falling-down drunk, but your judgment may be compromised enough to cause an accident, especially when driving conditions are imperfect.

In Alberta, we have lots of winter, which means icy roads and many hours of darkness. It’s not even November and the sun is only up for 10 hours a day in Red Deer. Adding even a little bit of driving impairment into that mix can prove fatal.

There’s much evidence of the horrors inflicted on society by traffic mishaps. On two successive weekends, carloads of Alberta teenagers have been killed in car accidents.

Near Grande Prairie last weekend, four boys were killed when a pickup truck hit their car.

The truck driver has been charged with impaired driving.

One victim, Matthew Deller, attended Hunting Hills High School in Red Deer two years ago.

Less than a week before that tragedy, four teens were killed in a single-vehicle rollover south of Lethbridge. Speed and inexperience, not alcohol, are cited as causes of that crash.

We were also reminded this week of the tragedy of Brad and Krista Howe, who were killed by a drunk driver in February 2010 in Red Deer, leaving their five young children to be raised by extended family.

Their killer, Chad Mitchell Olsen, 24, was sentenced to another 15 months in jail by the Alberta Court of Appeal this week, on top of the 27-month term imposed by the trial judge last spring.

Olsen is a ruthless and reckless driver. His record features three driving suspensions and 15 traffic tickets, including nine speeding infractions in five years.

Heather Forsyth, the Wildrose critic for the Solicitor General, says the Alberta government should focus on repeat offenders like Olsen.

They should indeed, but it’s not enough to concentrate on a single priority. One initiative alone will not halt the enduring carnage created by drunk drivers.

Forsyth says we should wait and watch what happens in British Columbia. Why wait while lives of innocent Albertans are at risk?

Alberta statistics show that traffic accidents and fatalities fell last year from the previous one, but nothing close to what has happened in B.C.

More than 20 per cent of Alberta drivers involved in fatal driving mishaps last year had been drinking.

Every reasonable line of attack to reduce this carnage should be pursued. Temporarily suspending licences for people approaching the current blood-alcohol limit is one more tool.

Forsyth’s line of reasoning may be based on preserving political support in rural Alberta, where the Wildrose is strongest, and where there is scant public transit or taxi service to get impaired drivers safely home from bars.

But the traffic fatality rate is also much higher in rural Alberta than in our cities.

The pattern is not exclusive to Alberta: 20 per cent of Canadians are rural, but they account for more that three-quarter of all traffic deaths.

Many reasons for this discrepancy are beyond the control of rural drivers, including longer trips, greater distance from hospitals, inferior and poorly lit roads.

There are also things rural drivers can control but fail to at higher rates than their urban counterparts. They speed more. They don’t buckle their seatbelts as often.

And they drive while impaired more frequently.

As a result, more are injured or killed in traffic.

Every one of those grim outcomes becomes more likely when drivers are even slightly impaired.

Temporary licence suspensions for the marginally impaired seem like a cheap and effective way to help save lives and keep Alberta families together.

Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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