TORONTO -- "Drinking and Driving . . . It's Criminal" is the slogan of the Metropolitan Toronto Police department's intensive holiday season campaign this year. It is not just a catchy one-liner, as all here are acutely aware.
First offenders convicted of drunk driving in Ontario automatically lose their licenses for one year. Second offenders must spend at least 14 days in jail as a result of the mandatory sentencing provisions of Canada's severe drunk driving laws. The hard-luck pleas of bus drivers or others who need a license to make a living are ignored, because under the new law judges do not have the discretion to waive minimum penalties. The law grants them the authority only to increase fines and jail terms depending on the circumstances.
Some Canadian judges have not only sent repeat offenders off to the penitentiary but have revoked their licenses for life.
From mid-November to mid-January, police in the province of Ontario, aided by a 450-member part-time auxiliary force of teachers, bankers, engineers and other volunteers, set up floating checkpoints around the province, stopping all vehicles. During the holidays last year, they stopped 357,167 vehicles. They indicate that they intend to stop at least as many this season and now plan to extend the program year-round.
Persons who fail the roadside sobriety test, meaning they appear to have 80 milligrams or more of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood, are taken to the stationhouse for more sophisticated testing. Refusal to take the tests is a crime, which carries the same penalties as conviction for driving while intoxicated. Those who are stopped on the highway and appear to have more than 50 milligrams but less than 80 are not taken in but are forced by police to leave their car on the roadside and are forbidden to drive for 12 hours. If the car is illegally parked, police can, and often do, call in tow trucks to haul it to a city lot. The driver must pay towing fees to reclaim the car.
The tough measures appear to have gradually reduced alcohol-related fatalities. Although detailed statistics for all of Canada have not been compiled, the province of Ontario, which has a population of 9.3 million, recorded only 420 alcohol-related traffic deaths last year -- a reduction by one third of the number who died in 1980.
Statistics compiled by the U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration indicate that the advertising campaigns in the United States against drinking and driving have had little effect. Although there was a slight dropoff in alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. in the early 1980s, the number of traffic fatalities involving alcohol rose last year to about 24,000, which is about what it was five years ago. Officials at the agency in Washington said the rise last year was proportional to the increase in numbers of cars on the road. There has been no public outcry in Canada against the tough penalties for impaired driving, which were strengthened two years ago in response to lobbying by citizens' groups such as PRIDE, People to Reduce Impaired Driving Everywhere; MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and SADD, Students Against Drunk Driving, which receive generous public funding.
Nor is the heavy police presence during the holiday season regarded as an unwarranted intrusion. Many here say that the easy acceptance of the crackdown reflects some of the subtle but significant differences in Canadian and American attitudes.
"I think it's that when we see the police coming, we say, 'Oh no, we're screwing up,' " said Anne Jackson, an owner of the Underground Railroad, a popular downtown Toronto restaurant. "We respect the law."
Added Donna Dasko, vice president of the Toronto-based Environics polling firm, "We tend to look to government for protection; we don't look to government as an alien force, and I think that's where Canadians fundamentally differ from Americans."
Criminal lawyer Paul Bennett, who has represented clients caught in police roadside dragnets, questions the efficiency of spot checks, observing that in the first five days of the program this year, police in Ontario stopped 18,574 vehicles but held only nine operators on drinking and driving charges. But, he concedes, "as a deterrent, it's working. There's no question about that. I used to be one who would have one too many but still drive. I just don't do that any more. I can't afford my legal services."
"Driving used to be regarded as a right," Bennett said, "but now it's very much regarded as a privilege."
The only way he can successfully defend a client, Bennett said, is to discover that police made a technical error when charging a driver and did not follow to the letter the elaborate procedures set forth in the law or that the police officer erred somehow in testimony in court. "Impaired driving law is what I call reactive law," he said. "You're lying in the weeds waiting to see if they make a mistake."
There is no indication that the tough sanctions have caused Canadians to drink less beer and alcohol, nor has the government's campaign against drunk driving attempted to get them to cut down.
"We had to be very careful not to get too much of a temperance message in there," said Peter Agnes of the special "Drinking/Driving Countermeasures" unit of the Ontario attorney general's office. "That would turn people off. We're sort of gnawing at one end of the beast."
Canadians are ambivalent about drinking. On one hand, the only retail outlets for beer and alcohol are antiseptic government stores. Last call at restaurants and saloons is at 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 p.m. on Sundays. But despite those limits, much beer and alcohol is consumed. In industrial areas of Toronto, taverns begin filling up minutes after 11 a.m. when they open their doors. Unlike in bars and restaurants in most parts of the U.S., there is no legal limit on the number of drinks that can be ordered at one time. At the Brunswick House, a hangout of University of Toronto students, a favorite sport is to have a waiter bring enough beers to cover an entire table.Nevertheless, fewer people imbibe and drive. Some downtown bars now feature a console breathalyzer. "We're of two minds about the breathalyzer," said Agnes, "because there are some people whose idea of a good time is to see who can blow the highest."
Representatives of Alco Check Canada, which distributes Swedish-made hand-held breathalyzers, say they are doing a brisk business. Corporations, hotels, private clubs and some of Toronto's prominent hostesses are among their customers. The wife of a real-estate magnate forced all the college-age youths attending a party for her children last year to submit to testing with the device before they left. Those who flunked were not allowed to drive.
During the holiday season, many firms now routinely hire a fleet of 20 to 30 taxis to haul employes home after office Christmas parties. Another business created as a result of the crackdown calls itself "Keys Please." For a charge of about $20, the 24-hour service will dispatch sober drivers to take intoxicated revelers and their cars home.Washington Post researcher Nancy Kroeker contributed to this article.