Courts impair drunk driving charges

By Andrew Seymour
Ottawa
May 24, 2008

Frustrated police turning to license suspensions instead.

A slight increase in the number of 12-hour license suspensions handed out to drivers who have been drinking is partly the result of mounting frustration with the criminal court system when it comes to impaired drivers, says the head of the Ottawa police traffic unit.

There was a 3.5-per-cent increase in 12-hour license suspensions handed out in Ottawa last year. Staff Sgt. Rick Lavigne says officers are using their discretion to suspend the license of drivers in "borderline" cases where they suspect the driver may not register a blood alcohol level over .08 despite failing a roadside screening test.

Officers frequently don't want to be tied up for four hours or more bringing a suspected impaired driver into the station for a formal breathalyzer test that may not result in a reading over .08. The roadside screening devices do not provide a specific blood-alcohol reading.

"(Impaired driving) is one of the most contested charges in the Criminal Code," said Staff Sgt. Lavigne, adding officers could spend an hour or less issuing a 12-hour suspension instead.

Obviously impaired drivers and repeat offenders are still being formally processed and charged, the staff sergeant said.

According to police statistics, 578 drivers were removed from the road last year after a road-side screening test. Five hundred and fifty-nine drivers were given 12-hour license suspensions in 2006. The increase in 12-hour suspensions come as police noted a six-per-cent increase in the number of reports of impaired drivers.

According to police, officers filed 675 reports regarding drivers who failed to provide a breath sample or registered a blood-alcohol reading of more than 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood.

Despite the increase, the total number of impaired driving-related charges remained constant last year, with officers laying 1,361 charges, only a slight increase over the number of charges laid in 2006.

Police routinely lay more than one impaired driving-related charge against suspects accused of driving drunk.

Staff Sgt. Lavigne said one of the reasons the number of impaired driving charges didn't increase is reflected in the higher number of 12-hour suspensions.

"The conviction rate is so low and it takes six hours to process (an impaired driver)," he said.

"(Officers) exercise their discretion. They feel it is faster and more efficient to do a 12-hour suspension to get back out on the road and take on other service calls," said Staff Sgt. Lavigne. "You get (the driver) off the road right then and there and everyone is safe and sound, their license is suspended and their vehicle is towed away so they can't drive again that day."

The officer said he expects the number of suspensions to continue to increase after a tougher Ontario drinking and driving law comes into effect this summer.

The new law will allow police to issue three-day license suspensions for a first offence. A second offence will result in a seven-day suspension and require the offender to take a driving course, while a third offence will result in a 30-day suspension and an ignition interlock being placed on the vehicle.

Despite the small increases in 12-hour suspensions and impaired driving reports in 2007, police determined the number of alcohol-involved crashes in Ottawa dropped 15 per cent last year to a five-year low.

In 2007, officers investigated 287 crashes where at least one driver had consumed alcohol, 51 fewer collisions than in 2006, according to the statistics, which are expected to be presented to the Ottawa Police Services board on Monday.

However, the reduction in collisions did not result in a corresponding drop in the number of people seriously injured or killed in alcohol-involved crashes.

While there was a more than 40-per-cent drop in the number of minor injuries sustained, the number of people seriously injured rose 12.5 per cent in 2007. Seven people were killed in alcohol-related crashes last year, the number unchanged from 2006 and 2005.

In addition to the drunk driving statistics, police have also estimated the social costs of traffic collisions in Ottawa at more than half a billion dollars. Social costs are considered the value society would place on the elimination of the impacts and consequences of collisions.

According to police estimates, the 15,309 reportable collisions in Ottawa last year represent $590,829,623 in "human consequences," property damage and emergency responder and hospital time and materials.

Police also estimated last year's nearly $600 million total marks an increase of more than $160 million in social costs over 2006, when officers investigated 14,370 collisions.

Staff Sgt. Lavigne said a large portion of the increase can be attributed to a 12-year high in the number of fatal collisions in Ottawa last year, which killed 39 people.

Police arrived at the total by using an inflation-adjusted formula from a 1994 Ministry of Transportation study into the social cost of collisions in Ontario.