Convictions for impaired driving in PEI twice the national average

CORNWALL, PEI, Feb. 3, 2013/ Troy Media/ – Prince Edward Islanders like to talk about something called ‘the Island way of life.’

As a life-long Islander, it is something I have never really bought into. There is no denying PEI has many of the characteristics of small town life – tight knit families, a sense of community, a fine line between privacy and community. However, I have never been convinced a PEI small town is much different from one of similar size anywhere else in the country.

There is one aspect of the ‘Island way’ Islanders don’t like to brag about – with good reason. On a per capital basis, convictions for impaired driving in the Cradle of Confederation are twice the national average.

When I began my reporting career in the early 1980’s, the average sentence for a first time conviction ranged from $250 to $500 depending on the breathalyzer reading. Now, the average is between one and three nights in jail, along with a fine of between $1,000 and $1,500.Despite that, there has been little change – a recent Statistics Canada report showed PEI has seen approximately 300 impaired driving convictions each year for the last decade.

Liberal Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal Minister Robert Vessey is determined to change that. He has served notice he is serious about tackling the problem. Already he has passed laws making use of the ignition interlock (the driver has to provide a clean breath sample before the vehicle will start) mandatory for all offenders. The device stays on the vehicle for a year in the case of a first offence and up to five years for a third or subsequent offence.

While those measures have enjoyed a broad level of support, his latest plan is more controversial. Vessey wants to follow the lead of several American states and be the first province to institute a different coloured licence plate for drivers who have repeated drinking and driving offences. A scarlet licence plate, if you will.

Vessey admits the idea of holding people up for public display doesn’t sit well with many people. However, after a recent trip to Ohio, he is more convinced than ever he is on the right track.

His argument is simple. If alerting police and the driving public that a vehicle is driven by a person with at least two impaired driving offences saves at least one life, it is worth it. Vessey is unrepentant when people point out the vehicle may be driving by another family member who has no convictions, and has to suffer guilt by association. The way he see it, if the impaired driver had asked for a lift home in the first place, they wouldn’t have any convictions either.

He is facing an uphill battle. Even groups that could usually be counted on to support tougher measures to combat impaired driving, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Association of Police Chiefs, have been silent. Neither Vessey’s cabinet colleagues nor any of the other political parties in the province have commented on the issue.

One factor usually cited to help explain the high conviction rate is the lack of transportation options. Public transit is only available in the Island’s largest community and the buses stop rolling long before the bars fill up – never mind close. In many rural areas, there is not even taxi service available.

One of Vessey’s political rivals is working on a home-grown solution to that problem. Hal Perry, who recently took over as Leader of the Opposition while the Progressive Conservative Party hunts for a new leader, represents a rural constituency in the western part of the province.

For the past two years, Perry has been personally driving people home from parties during the Christmas holiday period. Now Perry is spearheading a drive to offer the same service year-round, at least on weekends.

Could the ‘scarlet plate’ work? There is no question that, especially in a smaller community, it could have a deterrent factor. Maybe the neighbours might miss your name in the court newspaper reports, but it’s unlikely they are going to missing a licence plate that says ‘I’ve been convicted for drunk driving’ that would be in use for at least a year.

The sad reality is, in a lot of cases, nothing else tried so far has. Why not give it a shot? However, the smart money says its impact would be limited.

Andy Walker has been a writer and commentator for over 30 years.

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