Tougher drunk-driving law lauded ... but it might hinge on a federal Tory victory
Kim Thomas holds at picture of her son Brandon, who was killed by a drunk driver, at a memorial in her Cochrane home. The Federal government has proposed changes to the drunk driving laws on Tuesday June 16, 2015. Darren Makowichuk/Calgary Sun/Postmedia Network
It’s not too little, but it may be too late.
At any other time in the past nine years, a proposed minimum six-year sentence for deadly drunk drivers would be hailed as a massive victory — but after a slow and agonizing wait for those seeking changes to Canada’s impaired driving laws, the news is ringing hollow for some.
On Tuesday, federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay finally introduced the Dangerous and Impaired Driving Act, two years after he made a commitment to simplify the legal process and get much tougher with Canada’s drunk driving sentences.
“We are sending a strong signal to those who choose to drive impaired that this behaviour is not only unacceptable, but is also creating a serious risk to public safety and putting everyone on the road at risk,” MacKay said.
And the bill certainly does all that and more, taking away ridiculous excuses used by drunks, increasing maximum sentences for drunk driving and making jail time mandatory for impaired driving causing bodily harm.
It’s a bold, badly needed bill that all Canadians should be clamouring to have passed — too bad it will likely never become law under MacKay’s watch.
“It won’t even go through, which is disappointing. This government has certainly been slow when it comes to protecting the citizens of Canada,” said Karen Harrison, who lost her brother Tony to a drunk driver in July 2012.
“This seems more like an election promise than anything, and so they table this knowing full well it can’t go through.”
The timing is the problem.
With a federal election looming in October and MacKay having already announced his retirement from politics there’s virtually zero chance the legislation will make it through before this edition of the Conservative government shuts down, with no guarantee of returning to power.
If the Conservatives are re-elected, the Dangerous and Impaired Driving Act — a bill spurred by a petition with more than 90,000 signatures — will become law but if the NDP or Liberals form the next federal government, the whole thing could wither on the vine.
For grieving victims like Karen Harrison, the timing is infuriating.
Only July 15, 2012, Tony Harrison was killed by a drunk motorist who crossed into the path of the 45-year-old Chestermere motorcyclist, who tried to lay down his bike to avoid the crash but didn’t have enough room.
The drunken van driver, Kelly James York, got six years for killing Harrison, a sentence based on criminal history that included two prior impaired-related convictions and two for driving while disqualified.
Harrison’s family and the Crown pushed hard for that six-year sentence, actually considered harsh for the crime — but under MacKay’s legislation, six years would now be the minimum for someone who kills while driving drunk.
That should happen, for the sake of innocents like Harrison and the more than 100 Canadians killed by drunk drivers every year.
“I’m cynical that it would be brought forward now, when we’ve been pushing for it for so long,” said Harrison.
Over in Cochrane, the mother of Brandon Thomas is taking a more optimistic view of the legislation, and Kim Thomas admits to bursting into tears after reading the proposed overhaul of existing impaired laws.
“This is a huge step forward, and it’s what we’ve all been fighting for,” said Thomas.
“It’s too late to save Brandon and the others, but we are changing this for the future, so there aren’t more victims.”
Drunk driver Ryan Jordan Gibson got just 32 months for killing Brandon Thomas on Dec. 6, 2012, after Gibson’s pickup veered into the oncoming lane, forcing one vehicle into the ditch and sideswiping another before it hit the car driven by the 17-year-old.
Under the new, law Gibson would be serving at least six years — a sizable deterrent Brandon’s mom wants to see enacted, no matter who it is sitting in the prime minister’s chair come October.
“I don’t think the next government can ignore this, no matter who it is,” said Thomas.
“I don’t think that when you have nearly 100,000 signatures asking for change, that you can just sweep this under the rug.”
— With files from The Canadian Press
The Dangerous and Impaired Driving Act would:
- Eliminate the ‘bolus drinking’ defence where the driver claims heavy drinking just before driving meant alcohol was still being absorbed when stopped
- Limit the ‘intervening drink’ defence where the driver claims drinking after driving was to blame
- Harsher penalties for repeat offenders
- Doubling maximum penalties for indictable offences without bodily harm or death from five years to 10 years imprisonment, and from 18 months to two years for summary conviction
- Making maximum penalties for causing bodily harm 14 years imprisonment and increasing mandatory minimum penalties for indictable offences from a $1,000 fine to 30 days imprisonment on summary conviction and 120 days on indictment
- Increasing mandatory minimum penalties for impaired driving and refusal offences causing death from a $1,000 fine to 6 years in prison.