The federal government is considering making sweeping changes to drunk driving legislation, including tougher penalties for repeat offenders and allowing random breathalyzer tests on Canadian roads.

The Justice Department has released a discussion paper on the proposed changes, seeking the input of provincial officials, interest groups and the public on 20 suggested amendments to the sections of the Criminal Code dealing with impaired driving and related charges.

The law has been amended at least 12 times since Parliament first criminalized drunk driving in 1921, including four times in the past 10 years alone, resulting in a confusing legal hodge-podge.

"These many amendments have created a part of the Criminal Code that is very difficult to understand," said the report, posted on the federal Justice Department Web site. "Indeed, the Law Reform Commission … in 1991 wrote that some of the provisions had even then ‘become virtually unreadable'."

The government is proposing recasting the law entirely, making drunk driving just one part of a new section of the Criminal Code dealing with all transport-related offences, including street racing and dangerous driving charges.

The new section would cover a total of seven charges: Criminal negligence (including street racing); flight from police; dangerous operation of a vehicle; impaired driving; refusing to give a breathalyzer sample; leaving the scene of an accident; and driving while disqualified

"Instead of creating separate offences where there is bodily harm or death, these could be addressed by increased penalties," the paper noted.

But the most contentious recommendation will likely be random roadside tests to nab drunk drivers, a measure recommended by a Commons committee last summer and which Justice Minister Rob Nicholson has said he favours.

Civil libertarians oppose random testing as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure.

The group Mothers Against Drunk Driving however, is a strong supporter of such random testing, saying action is needed because progress in catching drunk drivers has stalled over the past decade.

"Millions of Canadians continue to drink and drive because they can do so with little fear of being stopped, let alone charged and convicted," MADD said in a study released last July. "Canada has one of the poorest impaired driving records among comparable developed democracies, even though most of those countries have far higher rates of per capita alcohol consumption."

Canada's current legislation dictates police can only administer breathalyzer tests if they have a reasonable suspicion of drunk driving, usually through roadside sobriety tests.

But the federal paper noted that "some studies have shown that many drivers with illegal (breath alcohol levels) succeed in getting through roadside checks."

The Justice Department recommends random testing as a way of catching more drunk drivers, citing studies from Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland where deaths due to drunk driving accidents decreased by as much as 36 per cent after it was introduced.

"Random Breath Testing has had such remarkable results that in 2004 the European Union recommended that it be a part of every EU nation's traffic safety measures," the federal study concluded.

The government is open to input on the proposed changes until April 30.