July 2009

Drunk driving challenges rising

Challenges to Canada’s impaired driving system are growing, a Traffic Injury Research Foundation survey of Canadian lawyers suggests. Those charged with criminal drinking and driving offences are less likely to plead guilty and are more likely to take their chances at trial, leading to increasing backlogs and court delays. TIRF surveyed 1,000 Crown and defence lawyers across Canada in 2006 and 2007. More than 40% of cases are going to trial now, said Robyn Robertson, President and CEO of TIRF, in a news release announcing the survey. That’s not surprising, she said, given that the odds of being convicted at trial are decreasing while convictions carry heavy penalties. On a national basis, an estimated 72% of drivers charged are convicted, compared to 90% reported in the early 1990s. “An impaired driving conviction on your driving record results in the loss of driving privileges, increased insurance costs, and post-conviction monitoring. This, as well as the criminal record that results, can affect employment and cross-border travel,” Ms. Robertson said. “With such high personal costs and the potential for an acquittal, more accused drivers are willing to take their chances in the courtroom.” The TIRF survey found that Crown prosecutors handle four times as many impaired driving cases as the defence and that defence lawyers have more time to prepare their cases and specialize in certain areas. #Moving in the right direction TIRF said it is important to understand how policies and practices affect outcomes. For example, screening charges helps to ensure they are correctly laid and there is enough evidence to support them while restricting the ability of prosecutors to engage in plea resolutions increases the number of cases going to trial. A step in the right direction is the recent federal amendment that limits “evidence to the contrary” defences, TIRF says. “There is a need to strike a balance between appropriate penalties and what the system can reasonably handle to ensure these cases don’t slip through the cracks.”

In an earlier news release, TIRF applauded the federal justice committee’s decision to recommend maintaining the current Criminal Code of Canada blood alcohol content limit of .08. It noted that lowering the limit to .05 could potentially double or even triple the number of criminal impaired driving convictions before the courts, eroding the resources available to effectively prosecute higher BAC drivers. Instead, the justice committee recommended strengthening provincial administrative sanctions that provide for licence suspensions and other penalties for drivers who have a BAC above .05. TIRF also endorsed the committee’s recommendation to encourage the use of alcohol interlock devices in all provinces and territories, as they have been proven to reduce impaired driving while the device is installed.

Updated July 15, 2009