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What Does the Decriminalization of Drunk Driving Mean for Alberta?



By Brittany Da Silva


We are just barely into 2018 and there are already some big changes on the horizon. Alberta’s provincial government is looking to largely decriminalize impaired driving by giving police officers more discretion. Current laws dictate ties between administrative sanctions like licence suspensions to criminal charges, but new legislation will dispel this connection.


You may be wondering what exactly decriminalization means in this situation. Merriam-Webster defines decriminalize as “to remove or reduce the criminal classification or status of” or, more specifically, “to repeal a strict ban on while keeping under some form of regulation.” It is important to understand that by striking down existing drunk driving laws, the Alberta Court of Appeal is not looking to legalize drinking and driving. Rather, they are looking into changes that will give police officers the power to decide whether to criminally charge those who blow over the legal limit.


Alberta’s provincial government is planning to borrow ideas from British Columbia, where police officers are able to issue fines, roadside towing, and licence suspensions, rather than laying criminal charges. If you are over the legal limit in B.C., your licence is suspended and your vehicle is impounded for 30 days. With the changes that Alberta is considering, it will also be possible for first time offenders to receive administrative penalties and licence suspensions, without facing any criminal charges at all.


It may be surprising to note that Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MAAD) fully supports the decriminalization of impaired driving. By moving away from a punishment-based system and into a rehabilitative one, MADD believes that the number of drunk driving incidents will decrease and this decriminalization will reduce the strain on the court system. Suspension and impound will be effective immediately, taking place roadside as soon as someone is discovered operating a vehicle over the legal limit. This method is much faster than simply suspending a motorist’s driver’s licence roadside, while still having to wait months or even years for the case to be settled in court. MADD is in support of alcohol interlocks, rehabilitation programs, and hefty fines that will make drivers think twice about operating a vehicle while impaired. Switching to a rehabilitative focus will give drivers the tools to ensure that they do not make the same mistake again.


Reducing the strain on the court system and adopting a faster penalization process that can take place roadside are two very attractive reasons to support the decriminalization of impaired driving. However, without the threat of a criminal record to stop motorists from even attempting to drink and drive, will impaired driving incidents rise in 2018? It’s difficult to know for sure, but if the policies adopted in B.C. offer any foresight, the administrative regime seems to work – for now. It will be interesting to see if the federal government’s plan to legalize cannabis by July 2018 will have any effect on the number of impaired driving occurrences across the country. Only time will tell, but it seems that impaired driving laws are bound to change drastically by the end of the year.

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