New drunk driving penalties launch Labour Day weekend

EDMONTON – Alberta drivers who already face stiffer administrative penalties for drunk driving can now also get hit with longer licence suspensions for driving close to the legal limit.

On Saturday, new penalties kick in for those who are below the legal limit of .08 but above .05 — a level the province still considers unsafe.

Those who are pulled over and blow within that window in a roadside screening device will have their vehicles impounded for three days and their licences suspended for three days as well. Those penalties increase for subsequent offences.

“(The numbers) suggest to me that people are not getting the message on impaired driving,” said Transportation Minister Ric McIver in an interview. “We’re going to be monitoring the enforcement results to see if we’re getting more or fewer impaired drivers.”

The changes are the second of a two-stage modification to Alberta’s traffic safety laws aimed at cracking down further on drunk drivers.

Penalties have already been boosted for those who drive over the legal limit, which is 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood — commonly known as .08.

Those who blow over .08 are still charged under the Criminal Code with impaired driving. But as of July 1, their vehicles have been impounded for three days and, more importantly, their driver’s licences have been suspended indefinitely until their cases are resolved in the courts.

Preliminary numbers released this week by the province show that over the summer 994 Alberta drivers had their licences suspended pending criminal proceedings while 632 had vehicles seized. There were 114 licence suspensions and 73 vehicles impounded for new drivers with graduated licences.

The Criminal Trial Lawyers Association has said it’s concerned about the fairness of indefinite suspensions, given that it can take months for cases to come to trials. That may be an unfair inducement to get the accused driver to plead guilty just to be able to drive again.

McIver said the indefinite suspension is designed to send a tough message. Government lawyers advise it will survive a court challenge.

He said there are no plans to revisit the law, but said officials will be monitoring the arrests on an ongoing basis to see what’s working.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said.

The staunchest critic of the new laws, passed by Premier Alison Redford’s Progressive Conservative government last fall, has been the Opposition Wildrose Party.

The debate has brought ugly accusations from both sides. The Wildrose has accused the Tories of targeting hardworking Albertans who just want a beer after work at the expense of going after severely impaired repeat offenders.

The Tories, in turn, have charged that by not backing tougher rules, the Wildrose is happy to see sloshed Albertans get behind the wheel.

Wildrose critic Shayne Saskiw said the province is addressing the right problem the wrong way.

“We should be increasing the front-line enforcement, getting more officers at CheckStops and going after those repeat drunk drivers who are a threat to our families,” said Saskiw.

“What’s going to happen is that police officers will be waiting for tow trucks for hours on the side of the road while a whole bunch of dangerous drunk drivers drive through what has otherwise been a CheckStop.

“We don’t need more public relations exercises. We need more front-line officers.”

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