27 September 2012

Bonita Purtill and MADD: random breath tests and other approaches to impaired driving

The accident that killed young Alex Fleming, of Woodstock, Ontario, the infant son of Mary Rodrigues and Michael Fleming, was a tragedy for the family and their community. Bonita Purtill, the driver of the pickup that had broadsided their car on October 12, 2008, pleaded not guilty to “impaired driving and criminal negligence in the death of four-month-old Alex Fleming, impaired driving causing bodily harm and criminal negligence to Alex’s mother Mary Rodrigues and refusing to provide a breath sample to police” (Jury selected in Bonita Purtill trial, June 18, 2012).

Purtill received one year for refusing to take the breath test – a criminal offense - to be served consecutively (ie following the sentence for the impaired driving). The shorter sentence was included in the total jail time of 7 years minus time served, leaving 6 years, 8 months (MADD Canada praises Purtill sentence, Sept 20, 2012).

There appeared to be immense relief at Ms Purtill being found guilty, in part because it was an infant that died in the accident, and in part due to attitudes towards the combination of ‘drinking’ and ‘driving’ (Final arguments, different stories, June 28, 2012). Taken separately, each of these activities is legal to engage in, but put them together - as drunk driving - and public tolerance for them changes, possibly largely due to the efforts of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers).

Random breath testing

According to Andrew Murie, Canada’s CEO for MADD, “more than 100,000 charges related to impaired driving are laid across Canada each year. . . That's the people who get caught,” he said. “So there is a whole bunch of people who don’t. You can do it for a long period of time before you get caught” (MADD Canada praises Purtill sentence, Sept 20, 2012). Mr Murie also reminded readers that MADD Canada was advocating for the law to allow police to demand random breath tests in spot checks; I would add, the idea seems to be to do away with having to show good reason for exerting their authority in this manner.

Intended to save lives and prevent injuries, the random compulsory breath tests, carried out at checkpoints, would increase “the chances of stopping, charging and convicting a drunk driver” (MADD mothers push for random breath testing, May 09, 2012). Thus random breath testing is somewhat different from the RIDE program.

In Ontario, RIDE (Reduce Impaired Driving Everywhere), is described by lawyer Tushar K Pain as including “a provincial spot-check enforcement campaign started in 1977,” in which all cars crossing the checkpoint would be stopped and questioned (Ontario’s Drinking and Driving Laws Often Misunderstood, Sept 18, 2011). After questioning, those drivers seemingly not under the influence would be let go without having to take a breath test. On the other hand, the proposed “random breath test” spot check, Mr Murie of MADD is reported as saying, “would allow police at roadblocks to conduct about three times as many breathalyzer tests because they would not need to spend time determining whether there is “reasonable” suspicion a driver has been drinking” (Canada Contemplates Random Breath Tests, Oct 7, 2009).

Although there is currently a RIDE program in effect in Ontario that nabs impaired drivers, there seems to be more opposition towards the idea of a random, compulsory breath test program than RIDE. I added the word compulsory to the description as I felt it more accurately described what the reluctance was for members of the public in embracing random breath testing. The problem could be about living in a coercive state environment in which one’s right to freedom is being taken away.

One other aspect of the proposed ‘random breath test,’ as I understand it, is that the randomness of the method involves an approach based on luck, eg one in ten car drivers will be tested, rather than RIDE’s method of questioning everyone who gets stopped at the checkpoint but only breathalizing those who fail to convey the impression of being under the limit or who are believed when they say, Only one, officer.

In practice, however, how likely could it be for a driver to say, I’m a doctor and I’m in a hurry, in the random test situation, and being permitted to drive through without being tested? What controls will be set in place, and what loopholes will remain? Who is likely to be most affected? Which kind of breath testing would be fairer to most citizens, regardless of occupation or social status according to make and year of car? For more views on this topic, see in the list following, ‘Debate: Random sobriety tests for drivers.’

Related legal cases

Another local case of driving while impaired is that of Brian Crockett, Crown Attorney of Oxford county, who was arrested in Woodstock Ontario, on charges of impaired driving, on Saturday, Aug 18, 2012. Like Bonita Purtill, Crockett refused to take a breathalizer test. His case is due in court on October 2, 2012 (Crown named in Crockett court case, Sept 11, 2012).

In yet another case, in which impairment due to drinking was at first suspected, suprisingly the accused was not asked to provide a breath sample. The case was that of Michael Bryant, former Attorney-general of Ontario, who was involved in an altercation with a cyclist/courier, Darcy Sheppard, who tragically died that day, August 31, 2009 (Michael Bryant relives deadly encounter with cyclist in ‘28 Seconds,’ Aug 21, 2012).

The police officer responding to the Bryant-Sheppard incident took one look at the severity of the situation and asked Byant how many drinks he had had, but in the end, Bryant was not required to take a breath test. From Macleans magazine, in Bryant’s own words:

“The constable promptly manhandled me around to a spot in front of his squad car. He started pushing and poking me. He said I was in a lot of trouble. He kept asking how much I’d had to drink. In five different ways, he asked me if I’d imbibed. I told him I didn’t drink alcohol, period. ‘Yeah, okay,’ he scoffed” (The 28 seconds that changed my life, Aug 22, 2012).

Michael Bryant was arrested and charged with dangerous driving causing death and negligence causing death. Several months later, in May, 2010, the charges were withdrawn. In August, 2012, the book Bryant wrote, on the 28 seconds that changed his life, was released (The 28 seconds that changed my life, Aug 22, 2012).

There has been public protest to Bryant’s book and to the way the case was handled (see Michael Bryant book launch sparks protest, Sept 06, 2012). The one who had been drinking in this catastrophe was the cyclist who lost his life, and the one driving was the recovering, though apparently sober alcoholic, making it more difficult to label one side clearly in the wrong and the other side obviously right. Yet that was what was done. Even in death, Sheppard was made to take the blame, while Bryant got off completely, in the legal sense at least.

Drinking and driving – our history and culture

Where there actually is an impaired driver involved in an accident, it is easier to place blame. In other words, it is the alcohol that is being blamed, and the driver for not recognizing its distorting tendencies and impact on the mind before getting behind the steering wheel, although by that time, it’s usually too late. Even the description of a 1976 CBC radio broadcast can remind us how far we have come and yet how nothing really changes (Alcohol: Rethinking the minimum age for drinking, May 2, 1976).

In 2008, there was a move by health officials in London, Ontario, to raise Ontario's legal drinking age to 21, “as part of a series of measures to fight alcohol-related deaths and injuries,” but the suggestion was dismissed by Premier Dalton McGuinty. Ontario had lowered the drinking age from 21 to 18 in 1971, then increased it to age 19 in 1979 following complaints of more high school students getting drunk. McGuinty is quoted as saying, at that time, "If you're going to rely on the law to ensure that your kids aren't drinking underage, then you don't have a good understanding of human nature," he said before a Liberal caucus meeting (Drinking age to stay at 19, Apr 01, 2008).

It is recognized that the highest rates of impaired driving are among young drivers, (Impaired driving and other traffic offences, Nov 7, 2003), who may be testing their own powers as part of becoming adults - finding out what their limits are. Bonita Purtill was the exception rather than the rule – older and female – and managing to get herself into a situation involving the death of a small child.

The emphasis in the Purtill case has been on the law, related to irresponsible drinking and her decision, no matter what prompted her to do so, to get behind the wheel and risk doing harm to others. Purtill did have the opportunity of telling her story, though her credibility, or the facts as she described them, were apparently not accepted by the members of the jury as reasonable (Purtill takes the stand, June 28, 2012).

It is difficult, sometimes, to determine cause/effect relationships. Society changes and we may not always know how the change came about. But one good thing that has occurred since the Purtill accident involving the infant Alex Fleming in the car with his family, has been that child car seat regulations have been updated.

Infant and child car seats

“Injuries related to motor vehicle collisions are the leading cause of injury-related death for Canadian children” (Child passenger safety, Jan 10, 2012). See also the Ministry of Transportation piece ‘Safe & Secure: Choosing the right car seat for your child,’ last modified: June 22, 2012). Using the correct car seat, in the appropriate manner, has been important for our society for many years now, a result of the injuries and deaths involving children and babies in car accidents.

On Dec 29, 2011, it was announced that updated child car seat safety regulations would come into force on January 1, 2012. Minister of Health, Leona Aglukkaq, made the announcement, saying, “When these new regulations come into force on January 1, child car seats sold in Canada will meet Canada's highest testing standards and therefore will be as safe as possible” (Updated child car seat safety, Dec. 29, 2011).

Random testing of car seats has been carried out through the RIDE program in Ontario, for the purpose of ensuring that parents know how to follow the laws and are doing so. (Majority of car seats checked not installed properly: police, Nov 05, 2009). Parents needing advice about infant and child car seats can go to special centres set up for this purpose. Car-seat.Org provides discussion forums and access to resources for concerned parents (Car-seat.Org, since 2001). A local internet group in sw Ontario is Londonmoms.ca (see Car seat checks, since 2000).

Still, the emphasis seems to be on ending impaired driving, for MADD at least, no matter how impossible the task may be of fighting for zero tolerance. The Bonita Purtill case informs us just how tragic such accidents can be, changing the lives of both the victim’s family and the impaired driver (Woman guilty of killing four-month-old while driving drunk, June 29, 2012). Opposition to MADD’s efforts continue, as in internet sites concerned about random sobriety tests and what exactly are other countries doing compared with Canada (More MADD Opinion – Random Breath Tests & Ireland, 2010). In the meantime, taking advantage of advances in technology, medical expertise, and community programs, as in ‘Time to Double Check the Car Seats,’ June 21, 2011, might help mothers and fathers lessen the injuries and fatalities, within their families, from those who drive while impaired.

The 28 seconds that changed my life, macleans.ca, Aug 22, 2012

Canada Contemplates Random Breath Tests, By Robert Farago, The Truth about cars, Oct 7, 2009

Car-seat Chat, Car-seat.Org, since 2001
retrieved Sept 27, 2012

Car seat checks, London moms.ca, since 2000

Child passenger safety, Safe Kids Canada
Jan 10, 2012, http://www.safekidscanada.ca/Professionals/Safety-Information/Child-Passenger-Safety/Index.aspx

Crown named in Crockett court case, By Heather Rivers, Woodstock Sentinel-Review, Sept 11, 2012

Debate: Random sobriety tests for drivers, Debatepedia, Accessed Sept 21 2012

Drinking age to stay at 19, McGuinty says, April 1, 2008, By Keith Leslie, The Star

Final arguments, different stories, By Heather Rivers, Woodstock Sentinel-Review, June 28, 2012, Brantford Expositor

Impaired driving and other traffic offences, Stats Canada, 2002, Stats Can Daily, Nov 7, 2003

Jury selected in Bonita Purtill trial, By Heather Rivers, Woodstock Sentinel-Review, June 18, 2012

MADD Canada praises Purtill sentence, By Heather Rivers, Woodstock Sentinel Review, Sept 20, 2012

MADD mothers push for random breath testing, By Marlo Cameron, Ottawa Sun, May 09, 2012

Michael Bryant book launch sparks protest, By Terry Davidson, Toronto Sun, Sept 06, 2012

Majority of car seats checked not installed properly: police, InsideHalton.com, Nov 05, 2009

Michael Bryant relives deadly encounter with cyclist in '28 Seconds', By Vanessa Greco, CTVNews.ca, Aug 21, 2012

More MADD Opinion – Random Breath Tests & Ireland, Life after an impaired charge, 2010
retrieved Sept 2012

Ontario’s Drinking and Driving Laws Often Misunderstood, By Tushar K Pain, About Toronto Criminal Defence, Sept 18, 2011

Purtill takes the stand, By Heather Rivers, Woodstock SR, June 28, 2012

Alcohol: Rethinking the minimum age for drinking, CBC, May 2, 1976

Safe & Secure: Choosing the right car seat for your child, Ontario Ministry of Transportation, Last modified: June 22, 2012

Time to Double Check the Car Seats, Our Big Earth, June 21, 2011

Updated child car seat safety regulations come into force, Ottawa, CNW - Canada Newswire, Dec. 29, 2011

Woman guilty of killing four-month-old while driving drunk, By Heather Rivers, June 29 2012

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