Do longer license suspensions decrease impaired driving?

By Dayna Bartlett, Queen’s Economics M.A. student

In 2015, according to Statistics Canada, there were 72,039 police reported impaired driving incidents and 122 of those leading to death. Further, MADD Canada reports that on average, four people are killed daily by alcohol-related or drug-related traffic collisions. It is, therefore, no surprise that the concern regarding impaired driving is a subject that has continued to bring a range of heartaches and considerable debate. As it has been and remains one of the leading causes of death in Canada, there has been a great deal of research conducted, policies proposed, and laws implemented in the attempt to reduce the fatal collisions arising from impaired driving.

Under the Criminal Code of Canada, an individual is considered impaired and is subject to criminal charges if they drive while having consumed an amount of alcohol in which their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level exceeds the legal limit of 80 milligrams per 100 milliliters of blood. In addition to the per se legal limit set by the Criminal Code of Canada, different provinces have also implemented warn ranges, in which penalties and sanctions may be applied even if an individual is driving below the 0.08 legal limit. One of the more recent laws that has been adopted by most Canadian provinces aimed to deter drunk driving are longer license suspensions that offenders face if found driving with BAC levels between 0.05 and 0.08.  Specifically, license suspensions have recently increased for first-time offenders past the initial 24-hour period to a minimum of 3 days, and even longer in certain jurisdictions.

To evaluate the effectiveness of this policy, I gathered longitudinal data ranging from 1998 to 2015 for the seven provinces that implemented the new reform at some point during the period. These included Ontario (2009), Prince Edward Island (2009), British Columbia (2010), Newfoundland and Labrador (2010), Nova Scotia (2010), New Brunswick (2011), and Alberta (2012), where the years in the parenthesis indicate the year that each province adopted the new reform. Data on fatal motor vehicle collisions and other impaired driving measures were gathered annually for each province by Statistics Canada, CANSIM.

Similarly to studies by Eisenberg (2001) and Dee (2001), a panel regression with province and year fixed effects was used to evaluate the reforms overall impact. The results indicate that raising license suspensions for offenders found driving with BAC levels between the range of 0.05 and 0.08 for at least three days rather than the initial 24-hour period is an effective reform in reducing total fatal traffic accidents. Specifically, following the policy coming into effect, the findings remained statistically significant at the 99% level, while indicating a reduction in total fatal traffic collisions by approximately 0.23%.

This suggests that in 2015, about 166 impaired driving incidents were likely avoided due to the recent policy implication. Likewise, in 2013 there were approximately 2,172 fatal traffic collisions, meaning that following the new reform, approximately five lives were saved in the year 2013 alone. Whether the policy acted simply as a deterrent factor for individuals or led to less risky drivers being on the road due to longer probation periods, the main finding indicates that the policy is, in fact, effective in reducing fatal collisions.

With that said, I believe further research is still needed to continue to decrease the deaths associated with impaired driving. Although this study demonstrates that raising license suspensions past the initial 24-hour period to at least three days is quite effective, there are still many questions regarding the optimal probation period.