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Safety Council’s views on lowering legal blood/alc. level

Dear MADD:

I acknowledge receipt of your letter of December 6 written in response to CSC’s letter of December 4 to the Honourable Ann McLellan, Federal Minster of Justice, in which we expressed our concern that the Canadian Medical Association has joined MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) in demanding that the federal government drop the legal BAC to .05 from the current limit of .08, as an additional means to reduce the incidents of impaired driving.

For the record, the Canada Safety Council has never supported reducing the criminal limit from .08 to .05. Our position is supported by many organizations and individuals with important interests and constituencies concerned with this public health and safety issue, albeit, we are aware Minister McLellan has asked the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights to revisit this controversial and divisive issue.

Be further advised that we commend and respect those heart-felt comments and presentations that come from survivors who speak for the silenced victims of this despicable behaviour. Such comments and presentations reinforce our priority to solve this problem, in the process recognizing there is no “magic bullet” that will solve the country’s impaired driving problem - including changes to the law, funding or the use of technologies.

The following points clearly demonstrate that lowering the criminal limit to .05 will not achieve its intended results, and, in fact, there would be negative, costly consequences.

Claims about the impact of lowering the legal BAC limit are often greatly exaggerated and based on an uncritical assessment of the research. Studies usually find small and inconsistent effects. In most cases, it is difficult to separate the effect of lowering the BAC limit from the effect of other changes introduced at the same time - for example, administrative license suspension, increased enforcement, new methods of enforcement (for example, random breath testing), or the effects of a general downward trend in alcohol-related crashes.

Canada already has a non-criminal .05 limit. Every province, with the exception of Quebec, already enforces a BAC limit of .05 (.04 in Saskatchewan), which carries with it an immediate 12- or 24-hour administrative license suspension.

Some provinces, for example, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland impose further sanctions when an individual accumulates 2 or 3 such suspensions over a set period of time. The swift and certain punishment that typifies administrative sanctions is often more effective than uncertain and delayed criminal sanctions, especially when applied to more responsible drinkers who are usually at lower BAC levels.

Other countries do have a BAC limit of .05. However, the BAC limit in some of these countries is not always dealt with as a criminal manner. In most cases, the BAC limit is contained in the traffic law.

A BAC limit of .05 would have no impact on the majority of drinking drivers who are responsible for fatal crashes. For example, in 1999, 67% of fatally injured drivers had not been drinking, 20% had a BAC in excess of .15; only 3% had a BAC between .05 and .08. Experimental studies in highly controlled laboratory settings using very sensitive equipment can detect some decrease in performance at very low BACs - including those below .05. The extent of the impairment, however, is extremely small and is probably of little practical significance.

The relative risk of fatal crash involvement for a driver with a BAC between .05 and .08 is, indeed, higher than that of a driver with a zero BAC - about 2 to 3 times higher. But the absolute risk of crash involvement is about 0.6 driver deaths for every 100 million km traveled, so a doubling or tripling of that risk still results in an extremely small likelihood of becoming involved in a fatal crash. In fact, the increase in risk associated with a BAC of .05 has been shown to be equivalent to that of driving 5 km/hr over the posted speed limit.

Should such behaviour be criminalized? Lowering the limit to .05 would greatly increase the number of drivers liable for criminal prosecution. The court system is already overcrowded.

We have correctly noted in our letter to Minister McLellan that lowering the criminal limit to .05 or lower would have an adverse economic impact — and unfairly so — on the hospitably industry which employs hundreds of thousands of Canadians. As the evidence and record clearly reveals that any lowering of the criminal limit will not achieve its intended objective, advocating the lower reduction poses a threat to the economic welfare and living standards of so many Canadian workers. This negative consequence — public health and safety aside — alone should convince you to reconsider your position! The Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) Drinking and Driving report released in November estimates there were over 5 million “impaired” driving trips in the past while and that 84% of these trips were accounted for by less than 5% of drivers. These drivers are hard core chronic offenders who share several characteristics:

They drink frequently, often to excess.

Many are alcohol dependent.

They repeatedly drive after drinking.

When they drink and drive, their BAC is two to three times the legal limit (.08).

Many have previously been convicted of impaired driving and have driven while suspended.

They resist changing their behaviour and are insensitive to anti-drinking-driving campaigns. If the limit drops to .05, it is far more likely these chronic offenders will drive at three times the legal BAC, than that they will not drive drunk. We have achieved significant progress in the fight against impaired driving; if we are to continue to realize progress, it’s pretty clear who should be targeted - people who don’t care what the legal limit is, they will drink and drive anyway. Canada has some of the most severe penalties in the world for impaired driving, yet these individuals continue to drink and drive.

Criminalizing the social drinker, with all the costs that would entail, won’t remove high BAC drivers from the road. Again, good laws are driven by objectivity, hard facts and realism - not political expediency, emotion and hype. Let’s stop the rush to prohibition and find effective ways to stop chronic drunk drivers from taking the wheel.

The Canada Safety Council and other concerned organizations would be pleased to meet with MADD Canada to explore and discuss how further progress in the fight against impaired driving can be realized.


Emile-J. Therien


Canada Safety Council