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Amid court backlogs, Wilson-Raybould seeks provinces’ help to lower blood-alcohol limit

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould speaks in Ottawa on June 20, 2017.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould is urging her provincial counterparts to support her in lowering the blood-alcohol limit for drivers to .05 per cent from .08, saying that the current standard, established in 1969, underestimated the number of fatalities that would result.

The government had thought, based on research at the time, that 80 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood would mean double the number of deaths compared with sober drivers, according to a background paper Ms. Wilson-Raybould released Tuesday. But new research, she said, shows it means triple the deaths, and rises exponentially above .08 per cent. She did not cite specific studies, but said Ireland has cut impaired-driving deaths in half by legislating a lower limit.

"I believe that this approach would better respond to the danger posed by drinking drivers," she said in a letter to provincial attorneys-general in May, made public on Tuesday. In a separate statement to the media, she described impaired driving as the leading criminal cause of death and injury in Canada, killing and injuring thousands each year. She said, though, that she has not yet made up her mind to lower the limit.

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Ms. Wilson-Raybould's pitch to the provinces comes as the federal and provincial governments are scrambling to reduce backlogs in Canada's clogged criminal courts, after the Supreme Court set time limits for trials and judges threw out several murder cases over delay. Impaired driving constitutes more than 10 per cent of criminal cases, a Senate committee said in June, recommending that Parliament let the provinces handle most drunk-driving cases, outside of the Criminal Code, to save time and costly court resources. All provinces currently impose fines, license suspensions and other penalties on drivers whose blood-alcohol levels reach .05 per cent (and in some provinces, .04). British Columbia addresses most drunk-driving cases without using the criminal courts, an approach praised by the Senate committee.

Michael Spratt, an Ottawa criminal defence lawyer, said lowering the blood-alcohol limit could swamp the courts, although he acknowledged that it would save lives.

"There will be a tidal wave of new cases," he said in an interview.

Because the Criminal Code contains mandatory minimum penalties for impaired driving, there is little incentive to make a plea bargain, he said, and many cases wind up in time-consuming court battles. He also said he is concerned that any new law lowering the impaired-driving limit will tie up the federal justice department, making it less likely to get around to such matters as erasing some of the mandatory-minimum penalties introduced by the previous Conservative government, and which the Liberals have long said they oppose.

But, in her letter, Ms. Wilson-Raybould says she is "keenly aware" of concerns that a lower limit would bog down the courts. She says that changes introduced in April intended to make it easier to prosecute drunk driving would help alleviate pressure on the courts. She also said that when Ireland reduced the limit to .05 in the last decade, the number of charges fell by 65 per cent.

The discussion of a lower limit also arrives as the federal government prepares to legalize marijuana use next summer. In April, when it introduced a new law on marijuana use and distribution, it also tabled a law that would crack down on drinking and driving, by giving police the right to demand a breath sample from any driver at roadside, rather than requiring a reasonable suspicion a driver has been drinking.

According to Statistics Canada, the rate of drunk-driving incidents in 2015, the last year for which there are data available, was the lowest in 30 years. The Traffic Injury Research Foundation, a non-governmental group, says there were at least 480 road deaths in 2013 involving a drinking driver. There were at least 635 deaths involving a legally impaired driver in 2008, Statscan reported. MADD, an anti-drunk-driving group, says there were 1,497 crash deaths in 2012 in which a driver had some alcohol or drugs in their body. (There were 505 homicides that year.)

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Manitoba Attorney-General Heather Stefanson was non-committal in responding on Tuesday when asked her view of the lower limit. "I look forward to discussing this idea with my provincial counterparts and the federal government in the near future," she said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.

MADD has been calling for the lower limit for two decades, and says previous Liberal and Conservative governments have considered it. They "rejected it mostly for political purposes," Andrew Murie, MADD's chief executive officer, said in an interview, meaning it was not popular with what he referred to as the "alcohol industry."

Joyce Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Restaurants of Canada, which has about 30,000 members, said the evidence shows that the vast majority of impaired drivers who cause deaths had twice the legal limit of alcohol in their bloodstream. A lower legal limit would "discourage someone from coming in and having one glass of wine in a restaurant. They're not the ones who are causing the havoc on the roads."

According to an online calculator, a 150-pound man who finished 12 ounces of beer or five ounces of wine a half-hour earlier would have a blood-alcohol content of .025 per cent. A 130-pound woman who had the same would be at .031 per cent.

Video: Premiers want clarity on planned marijuana legalization (The Canadian Press)
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