Sign the Resolution
Contents | Feedback | Search
DRCNet Home | Join DRCNet
DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library | Drugs and Driving
Traffic Injury Research Foundation, 171 Nepean Street, Suite 200, Ottawa, Ontario Canada K2P 0B4
In December 1985, the Department of Justice Canada amended the drinking and driving sections of the Criminal Code of Canada, which included among other changes, an increase in the severity of penalties for impaired driving. This paper describes the results of an evaluation examining whether or not these changes in legislation had an impact on the drinking-driving problem in Canada.
A wide variety of data on drinking and driving behaviours and its consequences - i.e., alcohol-related crashes - were examined for evidence of an impact of the legislative amendments. The data provided evidence that substantial and dramatic reductions in the drinking-driving problem occurred in Canada during the 1980s. Despite these reductions, there was no evidence that could specifically attribute the reductions to the introduction of the 1985 legislative amendments. Several reasons why the legislation did not have an impact included; the public was unaware of the change in legislation; the law was not fully implemented; the law had unexpected and countervailing effects; and, the amendments related primarily to the severity of sanctions and not to the certainty and swiftness of their application.
In December, 1985, amendments to the drinking and driving sections of the Criminal Code of Canada were introduced. Two new offences of impaired driving causing bodily harm and impaired driving causing death were added. These offences carried maximum penalties of 10 and 14 years in prison, respectively. At the same time, the minimum fine for impaired driving was increased from $50 to $300 and a mandatory minimum three month court-ordered prohibition from driving was introduced.
This paper describes the key results of a major study to determine whether these amendments produced reductions in the magnitude of the drinking and driving problem in Canada (see Beirness, Simpson and Mayhew 1993).
A wide variety of data on drinking and driving behaviour and its consequences -- i.e., alcohol-related crashes -- were examined for evidence of an impact of the legislative amendments. The principal sources of data on the consequence of drinking-driving behaviour included:
The principal sources of data on the prevalence of drinking and driving behaviour included:
A variety of research techniques and designs were also used to assess the impact of the 1985 amendments to the drinking and driving sections of the Criminal Code. These research designs included:
As described above, a wide variety of data on drinking and driving behaviour and its consequences -- e.g., alcohol-related crashes -- were examined using several research designs for evidence of an impact of the legislative amendments. The data provide clear and conclusive evidence that substantial and dramatic reductions in drinking and driving occurred in Canada during the 1980s. All indicators of the problem revealed the same overall downward trend. For example, between 1980 and 1991:
Despite these substantial reductions in the magnitude of the drinking-driving problem, it was clear that there was no evidence that could specifically attribute these reductions to the introduction of the 1985 legislative amendments. The observed decreases in the indicators of drinking and driving problems were continuous throughout the decade. The downward trend was well-established prior to the amendments. The reductions that occurred after the introduction of the amendments were consistent with a continuation of the pre-existing trend. For example, using times series methods, Figure 1 plots the seasonally adjusted monthly number of driver fatalities with positive BACs from 1980 through 1991 for seven Canadian provinces. A visual inspection of this figure reveals no clearly discernible interruption in the series in or around December 1985 when the drinking and driving legislative amendments were implemented. In addition, statistical modelling of the series with the inclusion of an intervention parameter representing the legislative amendments introduced in December 1985, revealed that the small decrease -- less than two percent -- in drinking driver fatalities in the six years after the legislation was not statistically significant.
Seasonally Adjusted Monthly Number of Driver Fatalities with Positive BACs
The detailed analyses also revealed that the reductions in alcohol-related fatalities were not unique to Canada but were evident in the United States as well. This is illustrated in Figure 2, which plots the ratio of drinking to non-drinking driver fatalities -- the Problem Index -- from 1980 to 1991 for Canada and the United States. As can be seen, nearly identical changes -- i.e., declines -- were observed in Canada and the United States. This pattern of results suggests that it is unlikely that initiatives unique to Canada were responsible for the decline -- improvements in drinking-driving problems in Canada were part of a more general trend that affected drinking and driving behaviour throughout North America.
The Problem Index
As a result of this investigation, it was concluded that the 1985 legislative amendments in and of themselves had no significant effect on drinking-driving problems in Canada. In reviewing the evidence, it became apparent that there were several reasons why the legislation did not have an impact and these are described briefly below.
The public was not aware of the legislative changes. The success of the legal approach to discourage people from driving after drinking depends upon public awareness of the laws. Drivers cannot be deterred by the threat of sanctions if they don't know such sanctions exist. The reason the 1985 amendments to the drinking and driving sections of the Criminal Code did not have a measurable impact was, in part, due to limited public awareness of the law (see: Beirness, Simpson and Mayhew 1993; and Simpson, Mayhew and Beirness 1992).
The law was not fully implemented. If for various reasons the provisions of the law were not fully implemented by the police and/or the courts, the extent of any reductions in the drinking-driving problem would undoubtedly be lower than those that might have been observed had the law been implemented as intended.
And, there is some evidence from a previous report on the 1985 amendments to the drinking and driving sections of the Criminal Code (Moyer 1992) that there were indeed difficulties experienced in the implementation of the amendments -- e.g., following the legislative amendments relatively few drivers were charged with impaired operation causing death or bodily harm; once charged with one of these more serious offences it is estimated that 20-40 percent of offenders are actually convicted of a lesser offence of impaired operation (Moyer 1992).
The law had unexpected and countervailing effects. It is sometimes difficult to anticipate how the general public, the police and the courts might react to a change in legislation. If an unexpected effect undermines or subverts the intent of the law, it can serve to reduce any impact that the law might have produced. And, recent findings (Beirness, Simpson and Mayhew 1992; Moyer 1992) suggest that the law change had unexpected and countervailing effects. For example, there is evidence that short-term administrative roadside prohibitions (e.g., for 12 or 24 hours) are being used in lieu of impaired driving charges under the Criminal Code. Since 1986 in British Columbia, the number of such prohibitions has increased by 27% -- by contrast, the number of charges for impaired driving has decreased by 23%. If police officers are issuing more 24-hour prohibitions instead of laying formal impaired driving charges, offenders never experience the effects of the more severe sanctions introduced as part of the legislative amendments, which could seriously undermine the impact of the legislative amendments.
Drinking and driving cannot be affected by legal changes that emphasize severity of sanctions over swiftness and certainty. It has been argued by some (e.g., Ross 1992) that legal measures are an inefficient means for effecting social change, particularly if the consequences (punitive measures) emphasize severity over swiftness and certainty. And, given that the 1985 amendments emphasize severity rather than certainty or swiftness, some would contend that it is unrealistic to expect any discernible impact on drinking driving behaviour.
Beirness, D.J., Simpson, H.M. and Mayhew, D.R. (1992). Impaired Driving: Future Directions for Counterattack. Victoria, British Columbia: Motor Vehicle Branch, Department of Transportation.
Beirness, D.J., Simpson, H.M. and Mayhew, D.R. (1993). Assessment of the Impact of the 1985 Amendments to the Drinking and Driving Section of the Criminal Code of Canada. Ottawa, Ontario: Research and Statistics Directorate, Department of Justice.
Moyer, S. (1992). The Implementation of the 1985 Amendments to the Drinking and Driving Section of the Criminal Code. Ottawa, Ontario: Department of Justice.
Ross, H.L. (1992). Confronting Drunk Driving: Social Policy for Saving Lives. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
Simpson, H.M., Mayhew, D.R., and Beirness, D.J. (1992). National Survey on Drinking and Driving. Ottawa, Ontario: Health and Welfare Canada.