Signs, phone tips bolster Hamilton's battle against drunk drivers

Two years ago, MADD used money raised in Jesse Augustine's memory to put up 20 signs around Hamilton. They encouraged motorists to call the police when they saw a suspected impaired driver, and they're working.

Police aren't the most effective tool for spotting impaired drivers anymore. Increasingly, it's other drivers.

Const. Darren Murphy began volunteering with Mothers Against Drunk Driving after responding to numerous crashes caused by impaired driving. Murphy says the two-year-old Campaign 911 signs around the city are contributing to the increasing number of drunk driving arrests because a larger number of impaired drivers are getting caught. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Several times a week, Krista Noack drives by a sign near her east Mountain home and is reminded of her late boyfriend Jesse.

Every time the 24-year-old turns off the Lincoln Alexander Parkway at Mud Street, she sees the large white-and-red sign. "Safe roads, your call," it reads. "Call 911. Report impaired drivers."

Jesse Augustine, an aspiring competitive BMX rider who loved to fix things, died April 2, 2008 — nearly five years ago — at age 22. He was struck and killed by an impaired driver while riding his bicycle on Upper James Road. The driver was sentenced to four years in prison.

This is part of a three-day series about impaired driving in Hamilton. Other stories:

Hamilton family struggles to move on after father killed in crash

Hamilton police crackdown on drunk driving getting results

Noack's grief is still strong. But she says one positive thing has come from the collision — the signs that encourage people to call the cops when they see a potential impaired driver. Those signs, which were erected two years ago, seem to be working.

Krista Noack and Jesse Augustine pose at their high school prom. Money raised by family and friends in Augustine's memory went to erecting signs around Hamilton. (Krista Noack)

The number of impaired driving arrests hit a 15-year high in Hamilton in 2012. But Const. Darren Murphy, president of the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, doesn't see that as bad news.

He sees it not as an increase in the number of impaired drivers, but a testament to the power of the signs. More impaired drivers are getting arrested, he believes, because Hamiltonians are policing themselves.

Of the 538 impaired driving arrests in Hamilton in 2012, 166 calls came from the Operation Outlook signs. Murphy says calls come in daily from people who notice erratic drivers.

"[The campaign] has actually had one of the biggest impacts in discouraging impaired driving throughout the city," he said.

"Citizens are stepping up and saying they're not going to tolerate this. They're calling on a regular basis."

Socially unacceptable

The signs were first erected in 2010, after Noack and Augustine's families organized a memorial bike rally for the BMX rider. The rally included face painting, raffle prizes and ice cream. It was "a way to celebrate his life," Noack said.

Proceeds from the event — about $4,000 —went to MADD to put up about 20 signs around the city.

"I go by them all the time," Noack said. "You pretty much can't leave the city without driving past one."

She follows Hamilton Police Service on Facebook and sees posts about impaired driving charges placed after people called in to report suspicious drivers. It doesn't eradicate the grief, but it helps.

"It was a long process," said Noack, who befriended Augustine when she was 11. "But it's kind of a sense that something good has come of this."

Fast food workers a powerful force

Calls don't just come in from people who see the signs, said Murphy, who started volunteering with MADD after attending  numerous emotional impaired driving scenes. The most common and effective callers come from an unlikely source —fast food restaurants.

Workers who staff the drive-thrus notice when customers are belligerent, and they smell the alcohol and see the disorientation when drivers reach the window. When they call, officers respond, Murphy said. Police can't always get there in time, but they often do.

"I won't use specific names, but we have a lot of good arrests that come from the fast food industry," he said.

The campaign works because after decades of impaired driving education, people have little tolerance for impaired drivers, Murphy said. And that gives him hope for the future.

"People have said enough is enough," he said. "This is not an acceptable behaviour in society. Our goal is to stop impaired driving. People will continue to do so, but that's our goal."