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Jack Knox: How do we stop drinking drivers before it's too late?

Dec 09 2012

It was quarter to 11 on Friday night when buddy spotted the roadblock just north of Uptown, and tried dodging it with a quick right turn off the Trans-Canada.

Of course, being drunk, he couldn't handle the move without getting momentarily, and noisily, high-centred on the Carey Road median, right in front of Const. Greg Henault and his waiting Saanich police car.

The drunk made a split-second move to get away, almost clipping Henault, before better judgment trumped his fight-or-flight reflex. Once out of the car, the 30-year-old had trouble keeping his balance. His girlfriend remained in the passenger seat, sobbing (though who knows whether this was because her man had been busted, or because he was driving her vehicle).

The driver blew .16 at the cop shop. Turned out he also had an impaired conviction in 2001, a 24-hour suspension for drinking and driving in 2007, another in 2009 and a history of driving while prohibited. In fact, this spring he was convicted yet again of driving while prohibited, had his licence pulled until April 2013.

Which, as the Counter-Attack season was ushered in with roadblocks up and down the Island on Friday - Light Up the Highway, they called it - leaves us wondering exactly what it will take to stop people from drinking and driving.

Authorities cheered last week in announcing a 46 per cent drop in impaired-driving deaths since B.C. introduced immediate roadside bans in 2010. Heaven knows (as do bar and restaurant owners) there was a seismic shift in public behaviour that year, people who used to have a beer after work or a glass of wine with dinner suddenly afraid to drink anything at all.

Others didn't worry about it. The roadblock cops still find no shortage of impaired drivers. Some motorists can't shake the old attitude that it's like firing a gun into the night: no harm unless somebody gets hit, and they don't plan to hit anyone.

On Friday night, Const. Scott Buckler stopped a 77-year-old drinking driver on Admirals Road by the base - the exact same spot he caught the same guy doing the same thing last year. The driver blamed Buckler, was chirping about the inconvenience and cost of having his car towed and impounded.

That's what happens now. Blow a "warn" - over .05 - on a roadside screening device, and you'll be walking for three days or more. Blow a "fail," something above the .08 legal limit, and you lose your licence for 90.

"If you are impaired and you go through a roadblock, chances are you're going to get done," says Sgt. Graeme LeBlanc of the capital region's Integrated Roadside Safety Unit.

Yes, but how often are the roadblocks there? We have become conditioned to CounterAttack popping up around the same time Santa hits the malls, but what about the rest of the year?

Criminologists say it's the certainty, not the severity, of punishment that really deters people from committing crimes. People who don't think they're going to get caught aren't put off by penalties.

Nor do nice, middle-class people see themselves as criminals. IRSU picked off a very pleasant 60-something woman driving home drunk from a card game with the girls last week. They also stopped a middle-aged guy doing 86 in a 50 in Colwood, only to have him fail the roadside test - at 1: 30 in the afternoon. Friday night, Const. Mike Klein-Beekman impounded the car of a well-dressed man who insisted he had only had one post-work beer, even though he blew a warn, had slurred speech, glassy eyes and a flushed complexion. Some people get a pretty good buzz on without that much to drink, some not even needing to reach .05.

At one point Friday night, four cars were pulled over on the Trans-Canada at the same time. One middle-aged guy looked gooned, but recorded only a warn, so got a three-day roadside suspension. Another recorded a fail, so he will lose his licence for 90 days and his car for 30, probably end up going to counselling and spend a year blowing into an Interlock device before his car will start.

The two other vehicles reeked of the marijuana being stored in their centre consoles (one guy had a Cheech and Chong-sized baggie and a letter from Health Canada saying he was allowed to have it) but both drivers passed field tests, walking heel-to-toe, balancing on one foot, that sort of thing. There's no roadside breathalyser that will tell cops whether or how much someone has smoked; if they believe you have been toking up, you get a 24-hour suspension.

If you really mess up, like the guy who tried to escape onto Carey Road, you'll still face criminal charges.

That still leaves all the drivers who aren't caught in time, until it's too late. How do you stop them?

jknox@timescolonist.com

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