A recent PBS report dealt with a surprisingly effective drunk driving law in British Columbia that has managed to cut the number of drunk driving traffic fatalities nearly in half in only two years. The report discussed how one little girl’s death prompted action on the part of her parents and serious changes by legislators in the Canadian province.
The changes began after a four-year-old girl was hit and killed by an impaired driver. The woman who crashed into the girl admitted to consuming three glasses of wine, enough to be impaired without being over the 0.08 legal limit. The girl’s parents then launched a campaign to bring attention to the danger of those who have consumed some alcohol, but not yet enough to qualify as intoxicated.
In response to their campaign, the Provincial Government made a series of important legal changes. First, they toughened penalties for those who are found to be driving with a blood alcohol concentration greater than 0.08 percent. More importantly, they also created an entirely new range of punishments for those driers who fall below the legal BAC limit but are still considered impaired drivers. The new law says that those who have a BAC between 0.05 percent and 0.08 percent can now face legal penalties.
This low level impairment, reached after only two or three drinks, will result in on-the-spot action by the arresting officer. Police officers who catch drivers in this range are empowered to fine drivers immediately, suspend their license and impound their car that very night for a minimum of three days.
The new laws began to be enforced in late 2010 and the number of traffic fatalities fell sharply. Afraid that the numbers were a fluke, many people withheld judgment until another year had passed, at which point a 55 percent reduction in traffic fatalities had been recorded.
Though some have heralded the measure, others are critical. For one thing, the new law empowers officer to make a lot of decision without oversight, something that has been shown to cause problems in a handful of cases. Beyond this potential for police abuse of power, the law has also seriously harmed the business of local bars and restaurants, with business dropping between 10 and 20 percent since the implementation of the new laws, which are aimed largely at social drinkers.
Even critics of the measure say that the law can teach legislators an important lesson: that to be effective a law does not necessarily need to be draconian; it simply needs to have a quick and sure punishment mechanism. The penalties for driving with a BAC between 0.05 and 0.08 percent are not extraordinary, generally the fines are minimal and the car impounding lasts for a handful of days. However, the punishment is swift and seldom in dispute. Critics point out that drivers do not need to be threatened with lengthy jail terms for drunk driving laws to be effective, an on-the-spot loss of your car for a week is plenty tough enough to lead to substantial changes in behavior.
Source: “British Columbia Drunk Driving Deaths Cut Nearly in Half,” published at PBS.org.