Impaired driving convictions at lowest point in 50+ years
Officials say awareness, tougher penalties are helping
Impaired driving convictions in P.E.I. are at their lowest point in more than 50 years.
Highway safety officials say a growth of public awareness and tougher penalties play a big part in that progress.
Back in 1967 there were 427 impaired convictions on P.E.I. Those numbers rose steadily every year after that, peaking in 1980 at 1,570, then gradually dropping. In 2018 there were 234.
"There's more to do, but it's moving in the right direction," said Graham Miner, director of P.E.I.'s highway safety division, noting they now see about five convictions a week, compared to five a day in 1980.
At the same time, the number of drivers on the road has steadily increased — from 77,750 in 1980 to 112,585 in 2018.
So what's changed?
Miner said the problem reached a "crisis point" in 1980.
"There wasn't a person in P.E.I. that didn't know someone that had been impacted by impaired driving, whether it was a death of a family member, relative or someone within your community," he said.
It was common decades ago to hear hosts encourage guests to "have one for the road" before heading home from a party or get-together, he said.
Over time, he said drinking and driving has become socially unacceptable, and he sees evidence in that more and more Islanders are calling 911 to report suspected impaired drivers.
There are also fewer repeat offenders being charged for impaired driving.
Miner said years ago about half the drivers caught had one or more previous convictions. Today that's down to about one third. He said fewer chronic offenders is an indication to him that most of those caught for impaired for the first time are not getting behind the wheel again after they've been drinking.
It's difficult to say for certain that there are fewer drunk drivers on the road — rather than police catching fewer of them — but Miner looks at other statistics that point to that, including the number of collisions, traffic injuries and deaths, which are all down dramatically from the 1980s.
Ignition interlock for 1st-time offenders
Tougher penalties and more enforcement are also playing a big role, said Miner.
Since 1980, P.E.I. has introduced the roadside Alert alcohol testing device, licence suspensions, ignition interlock and most recently mandatory vehicle impoundment.
Even first-time offenders must have an ignition interlock device installed in their vehicle — at their own expense — before they can start driving again. That device requires the driver to blow into it; if the machine registers any alcohol, the vehicle won't start.
"When you look at a first-time offender — and including costs of increased insurance and maybe whether you lost your job — a first-time offence, just on the monetary side, could run you $20,000 to $25,000 dollars," said Miner, with penalties increasing for subsequent convictions.
Under the most recently-added penalties, first-time offenders will also see their vehicles impounded for a minimum of 30 days. The driver has to pay the towing fee and storage costs.
Those penalties include:
- Fine over $1,000.
- Jail time.
- One-year driving prohibition.
- Increase in insurance rates (doubling or tripling).
- Minimum 1-year ignition interlock, installation and monthly operational fees — roughly $1,200 - $1,400.
- Reinstatement of licence fee $750.
- Vehicle impoundment towing fee and storage fee — about $600.
- Mandatory rehabilitation programs.
The legalization of cannabis in October 2018 has not led to a large increase in charges of drug impairment, said Miner, although the number of impairment convictions did rise slightly from 229 in 2017 to 234 in 2018.
Miner pointed out those convicted of impairment from drugs face the same penalties as alcohol impairment, although they are not required to have an ignition interlock device installed.
The CEO of MADD Canada Andrew Murie would like to see the technology improve in saliva testing for cannabis impairment.
"People aren't getting that message to the same degree they have on alcohol," Murie said.
Murie hopes to see a standardized test for drug impairment that can be used in court, so judges are presented with a clear definitive indicator similar to the breathalyzer test that's used to measure blood alcohol content. He thinks that will lead to more convictions for drug impairment.
"The ability to measure precisely for drugs, as we can for alcohol, is missing," he said.
Getting to zero
What will it take to keep all impaired drivers off the road?
Murie said technology is the answer.
"If we solely depend on people's behaviour there will always be a percentage of people who for whatever reason don't make good decisions."
Both Miner and Murie foresee a day when alcohol-sensing devices will be in all vehicles — preventing them from starting if the driver has consumed any alcohol.
Murie points to new vehicles now being designed by Volvo, for example, which will be able to determine the alcohol level of a driver from the air in the car and won't start if the blood alcohol level is over the limit.
He said he can see this being brought in as an option for drivers, and being made mandatory for commercial vehicles and truck fleets within the next decade.
"As the technology improves, we need to use it and embrace it," said Murie.