Why impaired driving rates are spiking on P.E.I., and how to bring them down

From 2017 to 2019 the rate of police-reported incidences of impaired driving on P.E.I. more than doubled.

‘You can’t arrest and sentence your way out of an impaired driving problem’

RCMP believe more strategic enforcement has been a factor in catching more impaired drivers. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

From 2017 to 2019 the rate of police-reported incidences of impaired driving on P.E.I. more than doubled.

By the measure of how many impaired drivers police were catching, the province had been having a relatively good run.

After jumping up to around 500 incidents per 100,000 population in 2010 the rate fell to around 300 incidents until it began climbing again in 2018.

That rate was still about 50 per cent higher than the national rate.

Why they're up

It is important to note that what is being measured here is incidents reported by police, not the rate of those actually driving impaired, which is impossible to know. RCMP Staff-Sgt. Kevin Baillie believes there are a number of factors involved in the increase.

One of them, he said, is there are more impaired drivers on the road.

Some of that is connected to the legalization of cannabis in October 2018, he said. He does not believe it is a large factor, as some people feared it might be, but he does believe that is part of the increase.

In a statement to CBC News, the provincial government noted in advance of cannabis legalization officers received standardized field sobriety test training, which could have led to more drug-impaired drivers being caught.

Baillie believes enforcement has improved in other ways.

"We've tried to become more strategic in what we do to detect and deter impaired drivers," he said.

"We've been mapping and charting some of our collision areas, problem areas where we're getting complaints of impaired drivers."

RCMP have also been getting information from the public about some of the back roads impaired drivers might take to avoid police at checkpoints, when they know they are impaired.

The public have also been helping in another important way, Baillie said.

More calls from the public is probably the biggest single factor in catching more impaired drivers, says Sgt. Kevin Baillie. (Randy McAndrew/CBC News)

"The biggest contributor to the increase in the apprehension of impaired drivers over the last couple of years has been reports from the public," he said.

"I would estimate that probably 30 to 40 per cent of the impaired drivers we apprehend are as a result of a call from a member of the public."

That is an enormous change. If none of those drivers would have been caught by police without a call from the public, that would account for 70 to 80 per cent of the increase seen from 2017 to 2019.

RCMP started getting more calls from the public after the province put up road signs a few years ago asking for people to call 911 if they suspect they see an impaired driver.

"We like the public to be an extra set of eyes," said Baillie.

"It's possible to drive from Summerside to Charlottetown, or from Charlottetown to Montague or to Souris and not see a police vehicle, however you're definitely going to encounter other drivers and other vehicles along the way." 

Those calls are taken very seriously, he said, with cars dispatched immediately to try to intercept, and drivers will receive a visit at home if licence plate numbers are taken down.

How they might come down

P.E.I. hands out the harshest penalties for impaired drivers in the country, with more than 90 per cent of first-time offenders going to jail, but rates have remained stubbornly high.

"You can't arrest and sentence your way out of an impaired driving problem. It doesn't work that way," said Andrew Murie, CEO of MADD Canada.

"The biggest thing that deters people from impaired driving is actually the likelihood of getting caught."

But Murie said Saskatchewan provides an example of a few ways P.E.I. could be doing even better.

A few years ago, he said, that province — which has incident rates of more than 500 per 100,000 — decided to get serious about changing the culture around impaired driving. It started by giving a senior cabinet minister specific responsibility for the problem.

P.E.I. could learn from Saskatchewan's example, says Andrew Murie of MADD Canada. (CBC)

"It's a big difference when someone says, 'This is part of my profile, and it's my job to see … [impaired driving] numbers go down,'" said Murie.

Like P.E.I., Saskatchewan also has road signs asking people to call if they suspect an impaired driver, but it has also refined that strategy.

"What they started to do in Saskatchewan is when an officer arrested an impaired driver they put up 'Impaired driver caught here. Thank you. Call 911.' So, sort of, you called, there was an action taken, please call again," said Murie.

The province also recruited people victimized by impaired drivers to be part of public service announcements.

The result is similar to ads featuring actors talking about tragedies caused by drunk drivers, but hearing from the victims is much more personal.

"They are so powerful," said Murie.

"Like P.E.I., in Saskatchewan everybody knows everyone, so when they see those people's faces it's people in their community. It has way more of a pull to change behaviour."

The results have been dramatic, and fast. The campaign started in 2017, and while police-reported incidents have not dropped, a much more important measure has: the number of people killed in impaired driving incidents.

Over the last decade, impaired driving deaths in Saskatchewan have ranged from 39 to 65 per year. In 2019 it fell to 21.

Murie calls impaired driving deaths the gold standard for measuring the problem. It is, however, a difficult measure to use on P.E.I. where traffic death numbers are so low given the small population. It's just one year, but Murie is convinced it shows Saskatchewan's strategy is working.

Mental health and addictions

The Green Party on P.E.I. would like to see another tool added to the basket.

Green MLA Steve Howard said the government should go beyond approaching impaired driving directly.

"That's kind of treating the symptom," said Howard.

P.E.I. needs to get at root causes, says Green MLA Steve Howard. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

"If we treat the causes we'll reduce the rates of impairment, addiction and mental health issues. We say we're in a mental health and addictions crisis here on Prince Edward Island, and I think that that very closely ties to the culture of impaired driving we have here."

Howard would like to see a stronger focus on mental health and addictions in the province.

In a written statement to CBC News, the province said it is hopeful its new program to raise awareness among Islanders will make a difference.

"The [Justice] Department will look at best practices like public education from various jurisdictions and would look to see how it could apply to Prince Edward Island. Impaired driving is something that must be tackled together and it falls under the responsibility of multiple ministries," the statement said.

Back at the RCMP, Staff-Sgt. Baillie said while there may be some satisfaction in catching an impaired driver, that is not his ultimate goal.

"If we could ever get to the point where we could say we did all kinds of enforcement and checkpoints for impaired drivers on a weekend and we didn't find any, that would be the real success."

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Kevin Yarr is the early morning web journalist at CBC P.E.I. Kevin has a specialty in data journalism, and how statistics relate to the changing lives of Islanders. He has a BSc and a BA from Dalhousie University, and studied journalism at Holland College in Charlottetown. You can reach him at