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What You Need to Know About Alberta’s Updated Impaired Driving Laws

By Bonnie Staring

You’re headed to a small New Year’s Eve celebration when you spot flashing lights up ahead. Slowing, you come to a police Checkstop, with multiple officers verifying drivers’ sobriety before allowing them to continue on the road. You’re relieved to see it’s not a collision. After all, impaired driving incidents kill an average of four Canadians daily.

But identifying an impaired driver is just half the battle. Now the work really begins. From initial paperwork to court appearances, the prosecution process could take months—or even years—to complete. Given these delays, the provincial government recently announced a revised system, whereby most first-time impaired driving offenders will now receive administrative penalties, not criminal charges.

“For a first-time offence, this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” says Jeff Kasbrick, AMA’s vice-president of government and stakeholder relations. “These administrative penalties are serious and have proven to have a positive impact on reducing impaired driving.” He adds that AMA is working with the provincial government to establish recommendations for when first-time impaired drivers should be criminally charged—such as when an incident involves injuries or fatalities—versus when officers could dispense administrative penalties. Repeat offenders will still be criminally charged.

In July 2020, the government of Alberta passed Bill 21, the Provincial Administrative Penalties Act, which expands and strengthens administrative penalties to include first-time impaired drivers. Unlike criminal charges, administrative penalties don’t require a judicial conviction; police officers can issue sure and swift consequences at the roadside.

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These penalties—which include fines, licence suspensions, vehicle seizures, education and ignition interlock—are less time-consuming for police to process and are immediate in their effect and deterrence. “It’s estimated that this could free up more than 30,000 hours of police time in a year,” Kasbrick says. They also reduce traffic-related demands on Alberta’s court system.

Focusing more on administrative penalties than criminal code charges sounds counterintuitive, yet it’s more impactful and it’s been proven to work. Alberta’s new impaired driving framework is largely based on a model British Columbia introduced in 2010. Its positive results have included a 36 percent reduction in impaired driving incidents from 2011 to 2018 and a 54 percent drop in impaired driving fatalities from 2010 to 2018.

“This streamlined approach includes substantial penalties that not only have that immediate deterrence effect but has a longer-term benefit for traffic safety overall,” Kasbrick says, adding that Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and other groups support the approach.

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Impaired driving isn’t limited to the consumption of alcohol. “Cannabis impairs your coordination, reaction time, attention span, decision making and distance judgment,” Kasbrick says. Cannabis edibles, in particular, present a unique traffic-safety challenge because of the delayed onset of their psychological effects. This may tempt a person to consume more than is safe—or to mistakenly decide that they are safe to drive.

So far, the legalization of cannabis in October 2018 has not resulted in a huge upswing of driving-while-high charges. Kasbrick attributes some success to public education, but he cautions that roadside testing abilities and drug-impairment recognition training are still in their early stages.

No matter how a driver is impaired, stronger, more immediate penalties should have an impact. “We’re looking at a proven model that ultimately should deliver improved traffic safety for Albertans,” Kasbrick says. “No case of impaired driving is worth it; the new law helps cement that fact.”