Distinctive licence plates don’t play big role in reducing drinking, driving

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
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Guest Opinion by Desmond Colohan

The issue of distinctive licence plates for convicted impaired drivers is once more in the news. Letters to the editor either praise the minister as an innovator and praise him for his efforts to reduce impaired driving on P.E.I. (MADD Canada) or lambast him for humiliating drunk drivers and exhort him to consider other ways to address this problem (Letter of the Day, November 28).

I tried to look for the evidence the proposed change has been tried successfully elsewhere or, if completely novel, that such a change makes sense and has a reasonable chance of success. I must confess, I found evidence hard to come by.  

It turns out this is not a new idea. Requiring that people convicted of DUI (driving under the influence) or DWI (driving while impaired) put distinctive licence plates on their cars is only done in two American states, Minnesota and Ohio, while legislation to impose such a proscription has been defeated in six other states. I couldn’t find any other jurisdiction in the world, including the rest of Canada, which uses distinctive licence plates to identify convicted impaired drivers. Which begs the question, is this a great idea after all?

I can understand why this approach might appeal to a minister of transportation faced with mounting pressure to do something about our very real problem of drunk driving, particularly repeat offending. According to the National Transportation Safety Board in the U.S.A., repeat offenders comprise seven per cent of the drivers in motor vehicle related fatalities and 30 per cent of all DUI/DWI convictions, a disproportionately high representation. In a report called Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving, the NTSB did an extensive review of international efforts to curb drunk driving. Here are their recommendations:

1. Some 8-18 per cent alcohol-related vehicular fatalities would be prevented if we reduced legal blood alcohol (BAC) limits from 0.08 per cent down to 0.5 per cent for drivers aged 21 and over. Drivers under 21 years should have limits set at 0.02 per cent, in recognition of the fact driving experience and driving skills improve over time and BAC levels as low as 0.01 per cent can impair driving performance. Commercial drivers should have BAC limits set at 0.04 per cent.

2. High visibility enforcement has been shown repeatedly to deter DUI/DWI, as well as improving seatbelt compliance and discouraging distracted driving. A comprehensive program might consist of well publicized media campaigns; aggressive enforcement efforts such as saturation patrols and sobriety checkpoints; and swift and certain penalties for drivers arrested for DUI/DWI, such as vehicle seizure and sale, licence plate destruction, house arrest, mandatory treatment programs and mandatory jail sentencing for BAC greater than 0.15 per cent.

3. One highly effective way to improve detection rates is compulsory breath testing, in which all drivers stopped are required to provide breath samples, as is done routinely in Australia, New Zealand and several European countries.

4. Another sure way to improve detection rates is the use of passive alcohol sensors as preliminary screening tools. Current standard observational methods of assessing impairment at the roadside may miss up to 45 per cent of impaired drivers. Portable devices capable of detecting alcohol in the air near the driver’s head are more effective than assessment alone.

5. Having the police administer licence suspension or licence revocation at the roadside to every driver who exceeds the legal BAC limit has been shown to be a more effective deterrent to drunk driving than the threat of licence suspension or revocation in criminal court after the fact.

6. Combining ALS/ALR with the requirement that every suspended driver equip their vehicle with an ignition interlock system, which prevents the car from being started if the driver has ingested any alcohol, is an even more effective way to decrease the repeat offender rate. It is also recommended that the driver’s requirement to use an ignition interlock be recorded on their driver’s licence.

7. To deal with repeat offenders, NTSB recommends the creation of DUI Courts staffed by judicial, enforcement and treatment professionals who are experienced in working with substance misusers and who can deliver intensive treatment, close monitoring and graduated sanctions.

If part of the strategy is to shame convicted drunk drivers and their families, go ahead and follow Ohio’s lead and issue distinctive licence plates dubbed “party plates.”

Our minister wants to be more discreet and provide plates only identifiable to law enforcement officers. All repeat offenders in Minnesota get plates starting with the letter W. They’re called “whisky” plates and everyone knows whom the drivers are. Do you really think it’ll be different on P.E.I.?

If you need probable cause to stop a car, the police don’t need to know the operator’s driving record before making the stop. The U.S. has managed to reduce its annual alcohol-related vehicular body count by 53 per cent over the past 30 years and Canada and the rest of the world aren’t far behind. Distinctive licence plates didn’t play a significant role in these successes.

Desmond Colohan is a P.E.I. physician and coroner with an interest in addictions and responsible public policy.

Organizations: National Transportation Safety Board, MADD Canada, ALS/ALR

Geographic location: P.E.I., Minnesota, Ohio Canada Australia New Zealand U.S.

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