Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to rise and speak today to Bill C-376, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (impaired driving) and to make consequential amendments to other Acts.
The bill proposes to create a criminal offence for having a blood alcohol concentration exceeding 50 milligrams in 100 millilitres of blood or being over 50 as it is commonly called.
I would like to take this moment to congratulate the hon. member and my colleague here from Kelowna—Lake Country for bringing this legislation forward. I know he has worked closely with Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada on the drafting of this bill.
Combating impaired driving is a non-partisan issue. Repeatedly, all parties in the House have cooperated to amend the Criminal Code to make its provisions more effective in detecting and convicting those who drink and drive.
Indeed, the House currently has before it Bill C-32 in which the government has proposed major amendments that respond to concerns that have been expressed by law enforcement and prosecutors for many years.
I expect that all parties will consider carefully the presentations that will be made in committee by witnesses and we will work together to craft amendments if it becomes apparent that Bill C-32 could be improved.
If it should be the will of the House that Bill C-376 receive second reading and be referred to committee, I trust that the committee will have the same attitude toward this private member's bill.
If it is clear that this bill or this bill with amendments will be an effective tool in the fight against drinking drivers, then I am sure it will be supported. However, there are many issues that will have to be considered before a decision can be made.
It is important that we make the best use of our limited police, prosecution and court resources in this field of policing and criminal justice as we do in all other areas. We need to determine whether a Criminal Code offence for being over .05, combined with provincial administrative measures, is the best way to deal with low blood alcohol content drivers.
When Bill C-376 was tabled, Mothers Against Drunk Driving issued a press release supporting it and explained its benefits. The bill does not simply amend the code to substitute the over .08 with the over .05. Instead, it introduces new elements.
First, the new offence would be enforceable by a ticket.
Second, the penalties for the .05 offence would be less onerous than those for the .08 offence. A first conviction would be punishable by a $300 fine and a 45 day federal driving prohibition. Subsequent offences would be subject to a $600 fine and a 90 day federal driving prohibition.
Third, offenders who did not have a subsequent impaired driving conviction within two years would be deemed not to have a criminal record for the .05 offence.
As Mothers Against Drunk Driving stated in its release:
In summary, the proposed .05 BAC offence is designed to deter impaired driving without being unduly punitive or creating unacceptable burdens on the police and the courts. Moreover, the option of pleading guilty without having to go to court may discourage accused persons from needlessly challenging the charges.
Those are worthy goals, but I would ask members to also consider certain issues with respect to the proposed offence and the way it would be enforced to determine whether the goals would be achieved.
I believe that having less punitive measures for over .05 than for over .08 is appropriate. In the paper “BAC to the Future,” also on MADD's website, there is a table showing that a male who is 35 years of age is at three times the risk of a fatal crash at blood alcohol contents of .02 to .049, six times at blood alcohol contents of .05 to .079, and 11 times from .08 to .099. The risk rises exponentially with every drink thereafter. A 35-year-old male driver in the .10 to .149 blood alcohol content range is 29 times as likely to be in a fatal accident.
Proponents of criminal sanctions beginning at .05 suggest that the greatest safety gains might come not from deterring the social drinker but by convincing those drivers who have been driving at high blood alcohol contents to take one or two fewer drinks. They are still a danger to themselves and others but, if we follow the curve, they are less of a danger.
Obviously there will always be a degree of arbitrariness in setting a criminal level for blood alcohol concentration. The person who has a blood alcohol concentration of .079 is essentially at the same level of risk as the person who has a blood alcohol content of .081. However, the first has not committed a criminal offence and the second has, although the police would probably not lay a charge where the person is that marginally over.
One benefit of a new .05 offence is that these drivers would face something more serious than a brief suspension imposed at the roadside. Members would need to decide whether making over .05 a criminal offence is appropriate given that they are a greater danger than the sober driver but not as dangerous as the driver who is over .08.
If it is considered appropriate to make over .05 a criminal offence, members will need to consider the merits in the creation of a ticketing regime under the Criminal Code as is proposed in Bill C-376. The idea is innovative and the drafters have developed a detailed proposal. I suspect that when most of us hear about a ticket we think about a speeding ticket filled out at the side of the road. The police officer gives the ticket to the driver and they both go on their way. One is happy and one is not so happy. The police submit the ticket and the driver can either mail in the stipulated fine or contest the ticket. If the driver does nothing, he or she will be found guilty and the province will take measures to collect the fine.
This proposed ticket in Bill C-376 is very different. Criminal Code convictions are based on an approved instrument reading at the police station, not on the reading of a screening device used at the roadside. Failing, the screener gives the officer reasonable grounds to demand that the driver come to the station to be tested on the approved instrument.
To prove the new over .05 offence, the police would need to take the driver to the station. They also would need to fingerprint the driver so that the police information system can keep track of the convictions. Moreover, the driver would not be able to simply mail the fine in. The driver would need to attend at a court within 21 days to pay the fine and have imposed a prohibition from driving.
In these circumstances, I question whether this ticketing scheme will be used very much by the police. When they stop the driver who blows under .08 but over .05 at the roadside, will they take the driver back to the station and wait around while he consults counsel? I suspect the officer will be more likely to impose the short provincial roadside suspension in order to leave him or herself free to deal with much more dangerous drivers with high blood alcohol contents.
In summary, Bill C-376 addresses a serious concern and it should be given due consideration by this House. However, we must hear from the police, prosecutors, provincial licensing officials and all stakeholders. We must ensure that any change we make will work on the ground.