(This is the first of three stories about impaired driving in Hamilton. Visit CBC Hamilton Friday and Monday to read about the impact of drunk driving accidents on local families, and how Hamiltonians are increasingly helping to police their community themselves.)
It's around noon on a weekday in front of a west-end grocery store, and Hamilton police are looking for impaired drivers.
Officers stop cars for a matter of seconds — just long enough to step forward and put their noses closer to the open window. A heartbeat goes by and they wave the car through, ready for the next one.
For trained officers, that's as long as it takes, said Sgt. Doug Jonovich, who's been doing this for years. The smell of alcohol is the No. 1 tell, but they also look for slurred speech or lack of eye contact.
“When you know you're caught, you tend to not look people in the eye. You look away,” he said. “You fumble for other things to do.”Const. Tom Bennett does a RIDE check. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)
In a year like 2012, these skills were good ones to have. Hamilton Police Service made 538 impaired driving arrests, the highest number in 15 years.
But police held a record number of Reduce Impaired Driving Everywhere (RIDE) checks too, aided by $43,390.66 in provincial RIDE funding.
In 2012, Hamilton police stopped 228,315 drivers in RIDE checks, the highest number ever. There were 167,766 stops in 2011.
And they're not done — the 2013-2015 Hamilton Police Service business plan lists increasing the number of RIDE programs as one of its goals.
The emphasis on getting impaired drivers off the streets comes “right from the top” in the police service, Jonovich said.
“The chief is very passionate about this. He's very passionate about safety on the roads and this is one major problem we can deal with that we can have an impact on.”
The increased emphasis on stopping drunk drivers seems to be happening — and working — across Ontario.
Hamilton police laid four charges of impaired driving causing death in 2011 compared to zero in 2012. Vehicle crashes involving alcohol in the region also decreased by 33.65 per cent compared to the year before.
In Ontario, the number of deaths from impaired driving decreased from 227 in 2000 to 129 in 2009 — a 43-per cent decrease, said Bob Nichols, spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation.
Despite the positive numbers, the battle against impaired driving is far from over. In a 2011 investigation, Global News obtained information through a Freedom of Information Act request and calculated the worst areas in Ontario by postal code for impaired driving.
Two postal codes in the east end of Hamilton's lower city were in the top 10.
In the area beginning with the postal code L8L — west of James Street North and north of Main Street East, east of the Red Hill Valley Parkway and stretching north to the QEW — 3.66 drivers of every 1,000 were convicted of impaired driving between June 2010 and June 2011.
The demographics and circumstances of impaired driving are similar to those of past years. The time of the day when impaired drivers tend to be on the roads is from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., which is the same pattern it has always has been, Jonovich said. He estimates the average age of an impaired driver is about 40.
Nationwide, a recent Statistics Canada report shows that young people are still the predominant impaired drivers. The most common age in Canada for impaired drivers is 20 to 24, said Samuel Perreault, Statistics Canada analyst and author of the “Impaired driving in Canada, 2011” report.
Using police-reported cases, Perreault found that impaired driving rates peak at that age and steadily decline as a person gets older. That tends to be the case with crime in general, he said.
Other trends: while males represented 82 per cent of impaired drivers in 2011, their rates have steadily declined in the past 25 years. More females have been drinking and driving since 2005. Females now account for 18 per cent of impaired drivers compared to 8 per cent 25 years ago.
More and more, Hamiltonians are also policing their own community and reporting suspected drunk drivers, which should lead to a future of more impaired driving arrests, Jonovich said.
Society views seatbelts as imperative now and compliance is nearing 100 per cent, he said. He foresees the same future for impaired driving.
“Our hope is the some day, with continued high enforcement and educating the public, the same trend happens with drinking and driving.”