Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to address Bill C-247, a bill that would add ambient air alcohol sensors to the arsenal of tools that our police officers use to detect impaired drivers and to keep our roads safe. All of us in the House have lost far too many friends and others in our communities to impaired driving. As a country we have been losing ground in this fight for over a decade.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving estimates that impaired driving kills three to four Canadians every day. It also injures 175 more each day. That is more than 1,000 Canadians killed each year and more than 60,000 injured. As shocking as these statistics are, I know each of us in the House also knows, in our own communities, at least one story that puts a face on these tragic numbers.
For example, early one morning last April in the greater Victoria area, an impaired driver got behind the wheel of his pickup truck. He was speeding through an intersection when he struck a police cruiser driven by Constable Sarah Beckett. Having joined the RCMP at age 21, Constable Beckett was just 32 when she died last year leaving behind a husband and two young children.
Charges were filed against the driver last week, and I hope that justice will be served. While we know that nothing can make Constable Beckett's young family whole again, we must do everything to prevent the next tragedy, and that means deterring the next impaired driver from getting behind the wheel. Today's bill offers police one more tool with which to do that.
As it stands today in the Criminal Code, officers must have “reasonable grounds to suspect that the person has alcohol in their body” before they can demand a breath sample. That suspicion can be formed in many ways, from the smell of alcohol to slurred speech, or simply by an admission from the driver. The front line officers I have spoken with are good at their job, but they know that impaired drivers still slip through, and the research bears this out.
A 1999 study in the United States found that officers there missed 9 out of 10 drivers in the range from 0.05 to 0.08. That is high enough for roadside penalties in most Canadian provinces. That same study found that officers still missed half of the drivers over the criminal limit of 0.08 blood alcohol content. Detection rates have improved over the last 15 years and I, for one, tend to believe that Canadian police would outscore their American counterparts, but still a 2009 study by our Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights concluded as follows:
—current methods of enforcing the law lead police officers to apprehend only a small percentage of impaired drivers, even at roadside traffic stops designed to detect impaired driving.
One solution proposed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and used in other jurisdictions is to provide officers with passive or ambient air alcohol sensors to help them screen for impairment. There are benefits beyond just increasing the detection at roadside checkpoints. As we know from other debates on this issue, the evidence on what makes an effective deterrent is clear.
What deters the next impaired driver, what saves lives is not the fear of a crash or a jail sentence or getting caught, instead it is the perceived risk of being pulled over. The publicity surrounding the introduction of a new tool to detect impairment will no doubt increase that perceived risk of detection, and may make some people think twice before getting behind the wheel after drinking.
The front line officers I have spoken to, in Victoria, Ottawa, and elsewhere, have insights that deserve to be heard by Parliament as we study this bill. Four to five million drivers are stopped each year. Less than 1% of those give breath samples, but each test creates delays for drivers and risks for officers. In the winter, drivers are sometimes asked to exit their vehicle, so that the test can be done inside a police vehicle. Police are rightly concerned about the safety of drivers when these tests occur on the shoulder of a busy road.
In other words, any tool that can increase the detection rate and reduce false positives not only has the potential to deter impaired drivers and save lives but also has the potential to make roadside stops safer and more streamlined for drivers and officers alike. With that in mind, I find it difficult to argue against dedicating time at committee to study this bill in more detail.
There are questions about police resources, questions about the accuracy of these new sensors, and of course, questions about whether the use of this new tool might be challenged under section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These are important questions that deserve further discussion and study. Therefore, I am pleased to support this bill now, in principle, and hope that the appropriate committee will soon be able to give it the study it deserves.
I feel compelled to say, as I did when we debated a related proposal from my hon. colleagues in the Conservative Party, that there is a tremendous need for action on this file on the government side of the House.
Successive federal governments increased the penalties for impaired driving offences in 1985, 1999, 2000, and 2008. At first, stiffer penalties sharply reduced the rate of impaired driving offences. However, progress has been stalled since 2000, despite two rounds of increased penalties.
Six years ago, the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights completed its study on impaired driving. It showed that in 2006, the latest year for which data was then available, more Canadians were killed by impaired driving than in any year since 1998, and it was the third consecutive annual increase in fatalities.
That report stated as follows:
...impaired driving remains the number one criminal cause of death in Canada....
...despite our collective best efforts and intentions, it is apparent that the problem of impaired driving is worsening in Canada and we are losing ground in our efforts to eliminate the problem.
Those words remain equally true today.
More recent data available to us now shows that the problem continued to worsen after 2009.
Using data up to 2011, Statistics Canada reported this:
The rate of impaired driving increased for the fourth time in five years...and was at its highest point in a decade.
The evidence is clear. We need more than just harsher penalties. We need an approach that is evidence-based and focused on prevention, on saving lives. This means better training and support for our police officers. It means smarter investigative tools so that families are not denied justice by a technicality. It means taking a clear-eyed look at which penalties work and which ones do not. It means collaboration between the federal government and the provinces and territories on public education and best practices, and it means assessing the latest technology to detect drug-impaired driving.
We have been losing ground for a decade in the fight to end impaired driving. We have lost far too many lives in our communities, and we urgently need real action from the federal government. I hope that action is forthcoming.
Let me assure those on the government benches that when their plan is brought to Parliament, they will always find support and help from New Democrats. However, as we await government action on the fight to end impaired driving, I am happy to support further study of this proposal from my colleague from Mississauga—Streetsville. I want to thank him for his work on it, and I look forward to seeing the results of committee consultations very soon.