RCMP Const. Russ Stewart knows far too well the devastating impacts of drinking and driving.
He is still recovering from severe injuries he sustained after a woman driving a van two years ago smashed the car he was driving.
Her blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. He suffered broken ribs, bones and teeth, a ruptured spleen that, a torn diaphragm and a brain injury that has caused memory loss and the loss of his peripheral vision.
Sitting in a news conference listening to the provincial government announce new, tougher laws for impaired drivers, Stewart said he felt uplifted.
“It just does my heart good to see that there are steps being taken, because in my mind it’s always been an issue and it’s always been a problem (in P.E.I.)”
On Thursday, the province introduced amendments to the Highway Traffic Act that will impose stricter laws on anyone who drinks and drives, including mandatory use of ignition interlock devices for all offenders. Previously these devices, which require a sober breath sample from the driver before a vehicle will start, were not mandatory for first-time offenders.
Those who get caught driving drunk with a child under the age of 16 in the vehicle will also have their ignition interlock sentence increased by one year.
Transportation Minister Robert Vessey said government is cracking down on drunk drivers in P.E.I. due to the consistently high rate of offenders in the province.
“There’s no excuse for driving while impaired and our government is serious about reducing the number of impaired drivers on our roads by introducing tougher penalties,” he said.
To date, approximately 400 Islanders have participated in the ignition interlock program. With the new measures announced Thursday, government anticipates an additional 400 participants.
Vessey said this program has proven successful.
“The department has heard directly from participants that the interlock is the only thing keeping them from driving while impaired.”
That’s not all. There are also new measures for seizing vehicles of convicted drunk drivers.
Those convicted of causing bodily harm or death from their impaired driving will immediately have their vehicle impounded for six months.
Drivers convicted of any three criminal code driving offences within the last 10 years will also have their vehicle impounded for six months.
Currently, depending on the circumstance, vehicles could only be impounded for a maximum of 60 days with a two-year window on past convictions.
These new impounding measures will include towing fees and daily impound fees that will result in thousands of dollars in fines, not including those fines imposed by the courts.
Vessey said these impound measures are a way to remove the possibility repeat offenders will get behind the wheel while intoxicated.
“Suspending a license or increasing fines isn’t enough to deter repeat offenders from driving,” Vessey said.
“The idea is simple – if you no longer have a car, you can’t drive while impaired.”
These measures will be enforced in addition to existing laws that prohibit drunk driving.
Those laws were not a deterrent enough to prevent hundreds of Islanders from getting in their vehicles after consuming alcohol.
Statistics Canada data shows the number of guilty sentences for impaired driving in P.E.I. has remained slightly above or below 300 for the past six years. This accounts for almost a third of the Island’s total criminal convictions and is almost twice the national rate.
So far this year there have been 286 impaired driving convictions in P.E.I.
P.E.I. also has the unfortunate distinction of having the highest number of impaired driving charges per capita in all of Atlantic Canada, according to the P.E.I. RCMP.
Sgt. Andrew Blackadar said Thursday he is happy with these legislative changes and said they are just the kinds of new laws police have been looking for.
He added that impaired driving is a major problem in P.E.I. but tougher laws and fines alone will not fix the problem. It is mindset that must be changed.
Stewart echoed this, saying the situation will not improve until the public’s social consciousness about the serious threat of this issue has been raised.
“Part of the raising of the social consciousness (is) getting the general public to say ‘Enough is enough,’” Steward said.
“It’s time to apply the pressure to those who are going to be offenders and repeat offenders – it’s not until all eyes are on them that they’re going to stop.”
After having survived a horrendous crash that could have easily been prevented, Stewart called these tougher new laws a victory.
“It’s been a particular thorn in the side of Prince Edward Island for a long time. It’s good to see that there are steps being taken to address it,” he said.
“It makes me feel quite good, actually.”
Amendments to the Highway Traffic Act will strengthen impaired legislation by:
- Making the ignition interlock program mandatory for all offenders
- Outlining minimum time frames the program including: one year for the first offence, two years for the second, and five years for the third
- Increasing the mandatory time in the ignition interlock program by one year if a passenger under 16 is in the vehicle at the time of the offence
- Drivers convicted of any criminal code driving offence causing bodily harm or death will immediately have their vehicle impounded for six months
- Drivers convicted of any criminal code driving offence not causing death or bodily harm, but who have been convicted of a death or bodily harm offence in the past 10 years, will have their vehicle impounded for six months