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Quebec couple speaking up about tougher drunk driving laws after political controversy

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Days after being thrust into a political controversy at the national assembly, Quebec couple Antoine Bittar and Élizabeth Rivera are speaking out — not about being asked to pay $200 to meet the transport minister but to advocate for safer road laws.

Last week, the husband and wife who lost their daughter, Jessica, to a drunk driver in 2017 revealed to a parliamentary committee that they paid $100 each to speak for a total of four minutes with Transport Minister Geneviève Guilbault last fall at a cocktail after receiving an invitation from her office.

They had desperately wanted to talk about changing Quebec's blood-alcohol limit so they agreed to pay the fee. But amid the Coalition Avenir Quebec's (CAQ) wider fundraising controversy, the party offered to reimburse the couple.

Bittar and Rivera are now trying to turn everyone's attention to what they were fighting for in the first place — having Quebec introduce administrative sanctions for drivers caught behind the wheel with a blood-alcohol level of 0.05. Right now, sanctions are only considered under the Criminal Code when someone reaches a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or higher.

"We're trying to save lives and we're trying to avoid other families to pass through what we passed," Bittar said in an interview with CTV News. "It's impossible to explain to people what it is [like] to lose a child."

They want to see changes to Quebec's Highway Safety Code to set administrative penalties, such as fines and temporary licence suspensions, for people caught driving in the warn range, which would be between 0.05 and 0.079.

What drives the couple in their advocacy is their daughter's memory, which they are hoping to honour by making changes they say could have prevented the tragic crash that ended her life.

"It's not extreme. It's just a warning. Once you get caught with this and you have to pay $1,000, the next time you're going to think about it. You'll say, 'What? $1,000? I could have paid $50 for a taxi.'"

Ontario, like other provinces, has sanctions for the warn range starting at 0.05. For a first offence, a driver who fails the roadside test must pay a $250 penalty and have their licences suspended for three days. They also have to pay for a licence reinstatement fee.

All provinces and territories, except Quebec and Yukon, have administrative sanctions for blood-alcohol limits below the 0.08 threshold, according to a petition tabled in the Quebec legislature last November calling for the new law.

Marianne Dessurealt, the head of legal affairs at the Association pour la santé publique du Québec (ASPQ), supports the proposed legislation. She said there is data showing that the possibility of a fatal collision increases four to six times at the 0.05 level or higher and that most impaired driving collisions involve first-time offenders, rather than recidivists.

An administrative sanction is not a criminal one, she says, comparing it to a speeding ticket.

"At 0.05 it's really a statement and a warning range so we need to understand that as a population, as a community. It's a warning range, between which you could understand what is it, exactly, because 0.08 you don't exactly know how many drinks you could have. But if you pass that point you have a criminal record possibly. And before that, it's a warning so it's a chance to gauge yourself," she said.

M.A.D.D. Montreal spokesperson Theresa-Anne Krame is also in favour of changing the road safety laws in Quebec.

"It works. in B.C., it lowered the death rate dramatically and we want to have that same effect here in Quebec, and yet we're being denied it," she said.

Guilbault's office did not respond to CTV News' request for comment by publication time on Saturday.

Rivera and Bittar say they can't understand why the minister refuses to lower the limit.

"That's what we're asking all the time: can you please tell us why?" said Bittar. "Let's talk about it."

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