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Drunk-driving deaths down 40 per cent in B.C.

Nov 24 2011
Saanich Police const. Doug Hanbury works a roadblock on Douglas Street in this file photo from 2007. 

Saanich Police const. Doug Hanbury works a roadblock on Douglas Street in this file photo from 2007.

Photograph by: ., timescolonist.com

The number of drunk-driving deaths dropped 40 per cent during the first year of B.C.'s tougher impaired driving penalties, Premier Christy Clark said Wednesday.

Alcohol-related motor vehicle deaths fell to 68 between October 2010 and Sept. 30, 2011, compared with 116 the year before and an average of 113 in previous years, according to government figures.

That means 45 lives were saved in the past year that would otherwise have been lost due to impaired driving, the premier said.

"All of us must live every day with the knowledge that the greatest risk to our children and the people that we love is not terrorism, it's not a plane crash, it's a drunk driver," Clark said in an emotional speech outside the legislature.

"The impact of the government's changes to the drunk-driving laws have been felt in a very real way across the province. They were highly controversial. They were argued about. They are still being argued about. But you can't argue with the results. You cannot argue with all of those families who have not lost children."

The government hiked impaired penalties in September 2010, giving police discretion to immediately ban people from driving, impound their cars and hit them with a fine of up to $500.

The penalties apply to people who blow a "warn" on a roadside screening device — registering a blood-alcohol level between 0.05 and 0.08 per cent.

There are stiff penalties for those who blow a fail, including a 90-day driving ban, a 30-day vehicle impoundment, a $500 fine, an $880 responsible driving program and a $1,420 ignition interlock device.

Police issued 23,366 immediate roadside prohibitions in the past year, of which 15,401 were "fail" breath tests over 0.08. Officers impounded 20,020 vehicles.

"It has actually changed people's behaviour, everybody knows about it, everybody talks about it," Victoria police Chief Jamie Graham said of the tougher penalties.

"When you go to events now at night, you watch the number of people that just don't drink anymore.

"It's really changed behaviour in almost a profound way beyond just impaired driving. So it's a good law."

Figures for Victoria show a 40 per cent reduction in fatal impaired-related accidents over a five-year average, said Graham.

But neither Victoria police nor the integrated road safety unit could provide exact statistics for Greater Victoria.

Provincial figures were also incomplete. While the government cited only 68 deaths related to impaired driving last year, it could not provide a total number of fatal motor vehicle accidents.

In 2009-10, 116 people died in alcohol-related crashes out of 376 total fatal crashes.

Critics have said the new administrative prohibitions effectively decriminalize drunk driving by moving it away from the public court system into a secretive world of bureaucratic sanctions which give vast leeway to police and civil servants. The penalties are also facing court challenges.

Steve Martin, who oversees the penalties and appeals as Superintendent of Motor Vehicles, said his office is aware of concerns that a 21-day appeals process means there is effectively no appeal for penalties such as a three-day suspension.

"That's a really important issue," he said. "That's on our radar."

Martin said about 3,000 people appealed against impaired penalties in the past year, of which about 20 per cent were successful.

rfshaw@timescolonit.com

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