Efforts to stop impaired driving hampered by loopholes
Little reduction in deaths from alcohol-related crashes in recent years
"Being the kid whose dad killed himself drinking and driving wasn’t fun," wrote Kait Cooper, a 24-year-old from Barrie, Ont., in a recent Facebook post.
It was the anniversary of her father's death. On the same evening 11 years ago, Douglas Cooper was driving home after a night of drinking in Ottawa and lost control of his car. He was ejected from the vehicle, and died instantly when his body slammed into a tree.
"I felt confused about my dad, because I knew that drinking and driving was wrong — but I still loved him," she says.
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By the time of her father’s death, a trend was taking shape across Canada: the steady progress made in combating the impaired driving epidemic during the 1980s and '90s was slowing.
In 1981, 62 per cent of drivers killed on Canadian roads tested positive for alcohol. By 1999, that number had dropped to 33 per cent — an all-time low. But since then the percentage has risen, hovering between 35 and 40, despite enforcement efforts by police.
Similarly, the number of police-reported impaired driving incidents declined from 150,571 in 1986 to 85,997 in 1999. Though it fluctuates year to year, the number reported in 2011, the most recent year for which national statistics are available, had risen to 90,227.
Alcohol-impaired driving remains the leading criminal cause of death in Canada. And a disproportionate number of those fatalities are among young people.
Terrible track record
Statistics Canada last offered a detailed analysis of impaired driving in 2013 using data that covered only up to the end of 2011. That report revealed that from 2007 to 2011, rates of impaired driving increased in four of the five years.
In the mid-2000s, for example, an international comparison of 15 wealthy countries — all members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development — found Canada was second only to Spain in the percentage of deadly crashes in which alcohol was a factor.
Canada has stepped up the severity of sentencing for drunk drivers over the past decade. Statistics Canada reported in its 2013 analysis that 84 per cent of impaired driving cases that went before a court resulted in a guilty outcome.
But tougher sentencing and conviction rates do little to account for the social and emotional toll of impaired driving on Canadian society, says Solomon.
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"Sentencing is the tail of the dog. It occurs after someone has potentially killed you or your family members, and we know that sentencing does not have strong deterrent effects on other people," he says.
The problem in Canada is not lax punishment, but rather apprehending impaired drivers in the first place, says Tim Stockwell, a psychology professor at the University of Victoria and director of the Centre for Addiction Research of B.C.
B.C., Alberta and Ontario have enacted tougher laws in recent years that grant police increased powers to get suspected drunk drivers off the road. In all three provinces, tragedies prompted the changes, such as the 2008 death of four-year-old Alexa Middelaer, who was killed by a drunk driver as she fed a horse on the side of the road in Ladner, B.C.
While police have a good deal of latitude in dealing with drivers they suspect of impairment, enforcement generally comes in the form of initiatives like holiday RIDE programs. But these efforts rely on brief interactions between police and drivers — a system fraught with deficiencies.
Some experts estimate, based on surveys and raw data, that the average Canadian could drive impaired once a week for three years before being charged with an offence, assuming no accident involvement, based on current levels of police patrols and checkpoints.
"Your risk of being caught drinking and driving is actually very low," Stockwell says.
Psychological research overwhelmingly suggests that the key to deterrence is to create the perception that that there is a high chance of being caught.
"When people are faced with the reality of real and immediate consequences, their behaviour changes," he says.
Random breath testing
When it comes to deterring drunken driving, some believe the most effective measure is random breath testing — a policy already adopted by the majority of highly developed nations,
Random breath testing gives police the authority to breathalyze drivers at any time, usually at checkpoints set up on arterial roads connecting busy routes.
For example, in Australia, often cited for the effectiveness of random breath testing, the policy went into effect more than 30 years ago in 1982. It’s credited with reducing the number of fatal alcohol-related crashes by nearly 35 per cent.
In Ireland, where random breath testing was adopted in 2006, the policy has been credited with reducing total annual road fatalities by 19 per cent. Similar reductions have been noted in the Netherlands, France and Germany.
Of the 34 member states of the OECD, only Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. have not adopted random breath testing.
Such an amendment would almost certainly invite charter challenges. In a 2011 paper, however, Solomon and his co-authors point out that driving is an activity that requires a licence and takes place on heavily regulated public roads, and is therefore likely to stand up to scrutiny.
The reactive nature of Canadian lawmaking and a failure to close remaining legal loopholes have also allowed impaired driving to persist in this country, according to Solomon.
When emergency services arrive at the scene of a traffic collision, the health of those involved takes precedence over an investigation. If a driver, drunk or not, says they need medical attention or are clearly in need of it, they are taken to hospital.
That driver, however, is well within their rights to walk out of the hospital and go home, and in some instances patients brought in after a collision are able to leave the hospital before police have the chance to question them, says Dr. Brett Belchetz, an emergency room physician in Toronto.
Doctor-patient confidentiality laws, however, prevent physicians from taking any action.
"We see people who are clearly impaired, and we can’t do anything about it," Belchetz says.
People don’t understand what they are risking and who they might leave behind to pick up the pieces. — Kait Cooper
"I get the feeling that there are a lot of people out there who understand that if they say are injured and go to hospital, they can walk out without having to answer any questions," Belchetz says.
Last summer Belchetz penned an editorial calling on the federal government to allow doctors to report suspected drunk drivers to police.
Kait Cooper, who has experienced tragedy because of impaired driving, says Canadians need to show more common sense, and not get behind the wheel after drinking. She adds that victim-impact advertising can make a difference.
"That one ad where the cop comes to the door and then the kid drops the milk is very effective. I remember the first time I saw that I had flashbacks of what I went through, and my brother and my mom felt the same way.
"People seem to forget that alcohol is a drug and it’s a very dangerous drug," Cooper adds. "People don’t understand what they are risking and who they might leave behind to pick up the pieces."