Alberta’s .05 law based on bad data?

This is not the first time that I have touched on the topic of the proposed .05 law in Alberta.

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This is not the first time that I have touched on the topic of the proposed .05 law in Alberta.

The issue has become a point of contention in the current election campaign because the provincial Progressive Conservative Party enacted legislation based upon the B.C. experience, which points to a dramatic 40 per cent drop in fatalities since enforcement began in late September 2010.

The B.C. government garnered a lot of attention when they released their statistics last fall. The numbers seemed far too good to be true to me at the time, so I dug a little deeper into the files to see why the results were so spectacular.

At the time our newly elected-by-her-party Premier Alison Redford had initiated a similar legislation proposal here in Alberta largely based upon B.C.’s reported success.

Many things crossed my mind at the time because the instant roadside impoundment of a vehicle and immediate licence suspension of a .05 driver is a very serious matter to every motorist.

It is an expensive punishment for an infraction that falls short of .08 blood alcohol levels in the Criminal Code that have been the benchmark for prosecution since 1969 in Canada.

The legal position is that a driver who is under a .08 blood alcohol level is still able to drive a motor vehicle with a minimal risk to themselves or other people.

The fact is that 60 per cent of impaired drivers involved in fatal collisions were more than double the legal limit and are a complete menace to society. Most data indicates that about three per cent of fatal collisions involved drivers who were between .05 and .08 in their blood alcohol levels.

This giant discrepancy forced me to look at the PDF file provided by the B.C. government because the numbers simply did not make sense to me. How could such a drastic 40 per cent drop in alcohol-related fatalities occur in such a short period of time when the target group only accounted for three per cent of the fatalities?

I looked at the Sept. 29, 2011, B.C. government report that opened with the following statement:

“Since the introduction of the Immediate Roadside Prohibitions on September 20, 2010, there have been significant decreases in alcohol-related fatalities. There were 44 alcohol-related fatalities from October 2010 to June 2011, which is a 48 per cent decrease in the number of alcohol-related fatalities for the same nine month time period for the previous five years (84 fatalities).

“This data can only be viewed as preliminary as it has not been reconciled with coroner data. Coroner data would present a more accurate conclusion as they require advanced analysis such as toxicology testing.”

The meat of the matter was the startling drop in fatalities but the B.C. report cautioned that the data did not include the coroner reports for these fatalities. The fact is that dead drunk drivers do tell tales because their post-mortem blood work would obviously provide a higher number.

The logical step was to establish the average length of time required to provide a completed autopsy report in the B.C. coroner system, so I dug around a little and found the answer in a July 2011 B.C. Auditor General report that reviewed the B.C. Coroners Service.

The crucial information was found in the following statement in the report:

“Death investigations and inquests are not always meeting stakeholder expectations and internal targets for timeliness. The average time to complete death investigations is not meeting the Coroners Service target of 18 weeks, although timeliness did improve from 2009 to 2010. Also, although the Coroners Service expects inquests to be held prior to the first anniversary of the death, most inquests do not meet this target. Finally, a target has yet to be established for the timing of death reviews.”

The report indicated that a target date of 18 weeks for death investigations was not even possible for the Coroners Service and they were also unable to even fulfil a target of one year for an inquest, presumably because the coroner reports took an inordinately long time before completion.

Armed with this information, I have to seriously question the actual value of any conclusions that do not appear to include the reports of dead B.C. drivers’ blood alcohol levels, since this data appears to be left out of the mix.

The quest to remove legally impaired drivers is an honourable pursuit that is beyond any reasonable argument. But, if the effort to remove legally sober drivers from the road is based upon very questionable research and a feel-good political agenda designed for pure political gain, then we need to think long and hard about the people or person who designed the legislation.

Jim Sutherland is a local freelance writer. He can be reached at jim@mystarcollectorcar.com.

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