Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to the motion to send the bill on drug-impaired driving to committee.
Bill C-16 is an integral part of the national drug strategy. It is an important part of the continuum of education, public awareness, treatment, harm reduction, and enforcement. This is one of the enforcement pieces that makes sure that continuum actually works. This legislation dovetails very nicely with the bill on marijuana that we have recently brought in. It is part of showing that nothing should be cherry-picked or taken on its own. It is part of an overarching strategy and plan.
There are some people who take a lot of relief from seeing that the number of deaths on our roads due to alcohol-impaired driving have dropped dramatically over the past twenty-some years, but I believe that so much more remains to be done to eliminate alcohol-impaired driving that we should not be heaving any sigh of relief at this point.
In public surveys the Traffic Injury Research Foundation has found that hundreds of thousands of drivers, representing some 6% of all drivers, make about five million alcohol-impaired driving trips each year. About 84% of all impaired driving trips are made by only 3% of all drivers. We are talking about a group of people who are in fact abusers of the drug alcohol.
This percentage sounds small, but it represents hundreds of thousands of drivers who put themselves, their passengers, and third party road users at risk. In road fatalities where there is at least one drinking driver, the drinking drivers and their passengers comprise the vast majority of fatalities. Often enough, fatal alcohol crashes are single-vehicle crashes.
We have far less information with regard to drug-impaired driving than we do with alcohol, but studies have shown that drivers using drugs are disproportionately represented in fatal crashes. We also hear of young people in Ontario who drive more often after using cannabis than they do after using alcohol. It is good that they are getting the message about not drinking and driving, but the news that they are driving after using drugs is alarming in the extreme. We also hear of drivers who combine cannabis and alcohol, as well as other drugs, and who have an even greater risk of crashing.
It is surprising that people take these risks while intoxicated by drugs or alcohol. Public education messages from government, organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, traffic safety organizations, police, health authorities, and educators are so prevalent that it is absolutely impossible to believe that there is a driver in Canada who is unaware of these messages.
Because these impaired drivers are still out there, it is important for members of this House to help the police where legislation can help. The drug-impaired driving amendments that are proposed in this bill could go a long way toward giving police officers the kinds of tools they need.
Sometimes the police may find someone driving who seems impaired, but the alcohol concentration is low on the breathalyzer test. The police have no ability to lay a charge, under paragraph 253(b) of the Criminal Code, of driving while over the legal limit. Given the low reading on the breathalyzer, they may be reluctant to trust their own assessment of the impairment and lay a charge of impaired driving under paragraph 253(a) of the Criminal Code.
Having training that relates to the observation of symptoms of impairment could help police officers to make better observations, not only of drug impairment but also of alcohol impairment, in order to strengthen the case where drugs and alcohol in combination are causing the impairment but the alcohol is only at a very low level.
The proposed amendments do not create a new offence of drug-impaired driving. That offence is already in the Criminal Code, and it carries serious penalties. When the drug-impaired driving causes bodily harm, the maximum penalty is equal to that for manslaughter and criminal negligence causing death.
This proposed legislation would give police officers the authority to demand roadside physical tests, more precise tests at the police station, and a bodily fluid sample. If all these elements align, then a prosecution could proceed.
At the present time, the police can only do physical tests if they have a suspect who voluntarily agrees. Surprisingly, there are many who do voluntarily agree; but not surprisingly, the police are often stopped short in their investigation because impaired drivers do not agree to have the test done.
The training that the police receive relating to drug recognition evaluations can help them in other ways when it comes to ruling out alcohol and drugs as causing impairment.
In policing the roadways or in dealing with persons who are arrested, the trained officer may conclude that medical attention is needed and that there is no drug or alcohol impairment. So there is another part of giving the police these kinds of training and skills.
It is interesting to note that even if a person has taken a drug, they may not be impaired by the amount they have taken, or the impairing effects may have worn off. This proposed legislation addresses drivers who are actually impaired by a drug. A certain threshold that attracts suspicion must be reached before the police can make a demand. If the investigation determines that the person is not impaired, then there will be no charge.
This bill, as I said earlier, shows the government's commitment to deliver reforms to drug-impaired driving as an adjunct to its cannabis reform. I note that a consultation document on drug-impaired driving in the fall of 2003 incorporated discussions among federal, provincial, and territorial officials, and that the comments received from the consultation helped to inform the bill that was tabled as Bill C-32 on drug-impaired driving in the previous Parliament. Of course the drug-impaired driving bill is not limited to cannabis; it addresses all drugs and impaired driving.
It is important to note that independent of the proposed cannabis reform, the drug-impaired driving amendments are necessary, and they should proceed independently. That is precisely why they are in their own bill and not subsumed in another bill, even though they are related.
There are some people who believe that demanding a set of physical tests from a suspect is an intrusion on liberty, but I would remind anyone who thinks this that the police are not on a fishing expedition. They are required to have a threshold of suspicion before making a demand for the physical tests. The drug recognition evaluation officer must have a reasonable belief that a drug-impaired driving offence has occurred prior to demanding these tests, and only when the evaluation officer identifies a class of drugs is there a demand for a bodily sample.
I would like to support this bill. It is a good bill. It gives the police the kind of training that they need to become good drug evaluation officers on the street, and it does not infringe upon the liberties of people on whom that demand is being made.