Last week, a 69 year-old Quebec man was charged with drinking and driving for the 17th time. Incredibly, he doesn’t even hold the record for most drunk driving offences in Canada–that “honour” belongs to Roger Walsh, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2009 after killing a woman in a wheelchair. It was his 19th drunk driving charge, and he was 57 at the time.
It seems unbelievable that this could even happen. It’s really hard to imagine that there was a judge who, after the 18th offence, told Walsh he should really stop this nasty habit, and then handed him back his license.
Most provinces suspend the offender’s driver’s license for life after either the third or fourth offence. (Quebec is not one of them; neither are Alberta, PEI or Saskatchewan.) But the laws are changing, and provinces are getting stricter, and although technically in Quebec it might still be possible to rack up 19 drunk driving offences, nowadays it would take a very, very long time. If you add up all the license suspensions, you’d need 89 years. Given that the earliest you can get a full driver’s license in Quebec is 19, the next person to tie that record will be at least 108 years old.
But why isn’t it the same in all provinces? What’s to stop someone from, say, getting caught twice in Ontario (where there’s a three-strikes rule) and then moving to Alberta?
There’s actually nothing to stop a dedicated drunk driver from doing that. Driving impaired is a criminal offence, so it’s a crime no matter where you are in Canada. But the license suspensions mandated by the Criminal Code are comparatively lenient: 1 year for the first offence, 2 years for the second, 3 years for the third and subsequent offences. The provinces (except New Brunswick) are harsher. It’s the provinces that implement a three-strike rule–or, in the case of Quebec, PEI, Alberta, etc, a five-year suspension on the third offence.
(Saying that the Criminal Code is lenient is maybe a bit misleading, because it slaps all drunk drivers with jail time. To a maximum of about half a year, but still.)
Now here’s what’s interesting: According to numbers released this year by Statistics Canada, the three provinces with the highest rates of drunk driving incidents are ones that don’t impose three-strike rules. (In case you’re wondering, that’s Saskatchewan, PEI and Alberta, in order.) It seems to be a pretty clear indication that if provinces don’t threaten drunk drivers with the loss of their licence, there is more drunk driving. The exception is Quebec, which, despite the two high-profile cases mentioned above, actually has the second lowest rate of impaired driving. Ontario has the lowest.
Some more stats to keep you up at night: Men make up a whopping 82 percent of all drunk driving offences, and it’s the young–those between the ages of 20 and 24–who are the worst offenders. And although there’s been a very slight decrease in the number of incidents over the past decade, it’s grown across the country by 2% since 2010.
There is some good news, though: Most provinces have implemented a zero-tolerance rule for young and new drivers, and both Quebec and Ontario have seen large decreases in the number of drunk driving offences over the last ten years — 28 percent in Ontario.
Still, don’t get too excited–the statistics can be misleading. When the Ottawa Citizen asked Sgt. John Kiss, who manages Ottawa’s drunk driving strategies, what he thought of the numbers, he answered with questions. “Does that mean we’re not as good at catching impaired drivers? Does it mean there are less impaired drivers? Does it mean that we’re too busy to look for impaired drivers?” Now, who should answer those?