Defense of Impair Driving Essay

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Driving While Impaired in Canada

Tough new laws have been enacted in Canada in response to the problem of driving while impaired. In this case "impaired" means driving while intoxicated on alcohol -- being over the limit on blood alcohol (driving under the influence, DUI / driving while intoxicated, DWI) -- or on drugs. This paper describes the issue, reviews the relevant legislation and laws, reviews the history of laws pertaining to impaired driving sanctions, and offers analysis of the contemporary legal situations regarding impaired driving laws in Canada.

What is Impaired Driving?

The Ministry of Transportation in Ontario defines impaired driving as driving "while you ability is affected by alcohol or drugs… a deadly combination" (www.mto.gov.on.ca). The fact is that one drink can reduce a driver's ability to concentrate on the road and the traffic. Even one drink can affect a driver's reaction time, the MTO explains. The MTO also explains that any drug "…that changes your mood, or the way you see and feel, will affect the way you drive." Of course the immediate reference is to the use of cocaine, marijuana, and other illegal drugs. But MTO adds that legal drugs, prescription drugs, can also affect the way you drive; in addition, some "over-the-counter" drugs can impair a driver's ability.

What is the Problem in Canada -- Why Tougher Laws?

Tougher laws related to impaired driving have recently been enacted in Canada, and will be reviewed later in this paper. The need for laws that are tougher can be seen in the data that is available. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in Canada, between 1999 and 2008, alcohol and drug-related accidents on Canada's highways resulted in "…an estimated 12,100 death, 713,845 injuries and damage to 2,359,190 vehicles" (Pitel, et al., 2011, p. 3). The average number of highway deaths linked to the abuse of alcohol and drugs per year, according to Pitel -- a professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario -- 1,210 deaths, 71,385 injuries, and damage to 235,919 vehicles. The cost to Canadians over the ten-year period between 1999 and 2008 was an estimated $20.53 billion, "or about $6,221 per Canadian" (Pitel, 3).

In 2008, which according to the MADD document edited by Pitel is the most recent year for specific data on impairment-related crashes, there were an estimated 1,162 fatalities, 68,538 injuries and there was damage to 226,522 vehicles. Pitel notes that Canadian data on "blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) is relatively reliable"; however, the data on whether a person might have been impaired by drugs is not complete, and that is due to the "lack of testing and testing sensitivity" (Pitel, 4). Roughly, the estimate is that about 25% of impairment-related crashes are due to a combination of drugs and alcohol; 75% of impairment-related crashes are due to the abuse of alcohol alone; and 10% of impairment-related crashes are said to be due to drugs alone with no alcohol involvement (Pitel, 5).

Moreover, it is known that some accidents -- likely caused by driver impairment -- that are not as serious, and don't involved fatalities, go unreported to police. This can skew the data that officials are attempting to keep as accurately as possible. For example, it is known that the number of "less serious crashes based on police reports are far lower than estimates based on insurance data" (Pitel, 5). A driver hoping to be paid by an insurance company for damage to his or her car certainly will report it to the insurance agent, but may not have reported it to police due to the impairment issue at the time of the accident.

A 2005 national survey in Canada reflected the fact that "15% of Canadian drivers reported driving a vehicle within two hours of consuming alcohol in the past 30 days" (Hales, et al., 2009, p. 364). In that same survey, over 1.5 million respondents did they know they were driving when impaired, and 16% of those admitted they drove while impaired "four or more times" within a one-year period, Hales explains on page 364. A more recent study of college students (full-time students) revealed that "20% of students drove after drinking some amount of alcohol, 10% drove after drinking five or more drinks, and 23% rode with a driver who was high or drunk" (Hales, 364).

An article in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review (Brown, et al., 2009, p. 408) reflects that some DWI offenders go on to get arrested again, and again. The research in this article points out that when tested sober, repeat DWI offenders "…exhibit significant cognitive impairment" to a significant degree (Brown, 408). Fifty-seven percent of repeat offenders produced test scores "indicative of memory problems" while 21% of repeat DWI offenders showed test scores that were normal in terms of the quality of their cognitive abilities, including memory competence (Brown, 408). This may explain why, when drinking, the recidivists that have cognitive problems operate vehicles recklessly. In short, they aren't truly safe on the road even when they are not drinking.

Additionally, a recent sample of sober DWI offenders (that had two to eight convictions for DWI) indicates that 70% were be impaired on at least "one index of neurocognitive capacity; that could include "problem solving, cognitive flexibility, working memory and visuospatial tasks" (Brown, 408). Again, this is an indication that these individuals shouldn't be on the road at all, let along after they have been imbibing alcohol. Brown goes on to relate that individuals with a history of alcoholism "show impairment in neurocognitive performance long after alcohol use cessation"; the impairments these individuals experience include: visuospatial abilities; declarative memory; language skills; motor and perceptual abilities; and executive functions (executive functions include "higher level cognitive processes" linked to "goal-directed behavior…planning and initiation, anticipation of consequences of actions" and the ability to change behavior based on environmental "feedback") (Brown, 408-9).

The same round of testing with females convicted of DWI shows that "82% exhibited impaired performance on at least one test…" (including memory and visuospatial abilities). However, Brown adds, the executive functions that male repeat offenders did poorly on were "relatively preserved" in females (meaning, they didn't suffer the same executive function losses as the male repeat offenders did) (Brown, 411).

As to the use of marijuana in Canada, an article in the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice references recent surveys that show young people 18-28 admit to using cannabis and alcohol while operating motor vehicles. In fact, the authors present results from a study of 102 university students who were "high-frequency cannabis users" in Canada (70 males, 32 females). The study revealed that "…a higher proportion of the sample [35%] had driven a car while under the influence of cannabis than had driven while under the influence of alcohol [4.9%] (McGuire, et al., 2011, p. 248). Some 3.9% of those 102 students admitted to having driven an automobile while high on cannabis and alcohol. Clearly, there is not as much research into the use of marijuana while driving as there is relative to alcohol and driving, but the scholarship points clearly to a need for more research in that genre. Also, law enforcement authorities need to have better science and technology in order to test for cannabis usage when drivers are arrested for impairment.

Canadian Laws Regarding Impaired Driving

Given the grim statistics regarding deaths and injuries on Canadian highways -- presented in the earlier pages of this paper -- it is not a surprise that the Canadian government has taken legislative action. In fact, in July, 2008, Canada instituted "Tougher Impaired Driving Laws," according to the Department of Justice. The provisions of the Bill C-2, "Tackling Violent Crime Act," that were signed into law in 2008 have been amended as late as April 15, 2011. If an impaired driver (on drugs or alcohol or both) is arrested with a blood alcohol level (BAL) of 0.80 or over, he or she will now face a "maximum life sentence if they cause death, and a maximum 10-year sentence if they cause bodily harm."

Also, if the impaired driver refuses to comply with a law enforcement's demand for a sobriety test -- or bodily fluid samples -- that driver is charged with a "criminal offence" under Bill C-2. Impaired drivers can no longer tell a police officer, "I only had two beers," the Department of Justice Web site explains. In fact a field sobriety test is mandatory in Canada, and trying to get away with a story that minimizes the amount of drugs or alcohol consumed will no longer be effective, Darren Eke, Press Secretary with the Department of Justice explains.

For the first offense, a mandatory $1,000 fine is levied; the second offense puts the offender in jail for 30 days (mandatory); a third offense results in a maximum sentence of 120 days in jail (Eke, 2011). The harsher sentencing should make it "easier for the Crown prosecutors to obtain Dangerous Offender designations," Eke explains. When a citizen…[continue]

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