Saskatchewan

A look at Saskatchewan's long, tempestuous relationship with impaired driving

This province has a history of being one of the worst when it comes to drunk driving. But Saskatchewan has come a long way, according to experts.

'We're doing a better job of getting that message out there,' says mother of drunk driving victim

Saskatoon police set their checkstop to coincide with the 2018 changes to impaired driving laws. (Twitter/@SPSTraffic)

Saskatchewan has had a long, tempestuous relationship with impaired driving. At various points over the years, the province has been the worst in Canada for drinking and driving cases. But Saskatchewan has come a long way, according to experts.

Between 2009 and 2018, the average number of impaired driving deaths was 54 per year, and the average number for impaired driving-related injuries was 595 per year, according to Saskatchewan Government Insurance.

In 2019, the province recorded 21 fatalities and 332 injuries due to impaired driving — down from 2018's 42 deaths and 360 injuries.  

Andrew Murie, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Canada, says these numbers reflect the province's tight focus on combating impaired driving. He says Saskatchewan has some of the toughest impaired driving penalties in Canada, including immediate licence suspension as well as a vehicle seizure with a driving suspension of up to five years  

"But I think we know that penalties itself is not the greatest deterrent. The greatest deterrent is the likelihood of getting caught," he said.  

"One of the things Saskatchewan didn't have 10 years ago was lots of levels of enforcement ... they've really upgraded the number of police officers available to do impaired driving checkpoints."

Andrew Murie is the CEO of MADD Canada. (CBC)

Murie also points to the federal government's changes to the Criminal Code in 2018 as a way to help provinces fight impaired driving.

Murie says a top current challenge facing Saskatchewan and other provinces is drug-related impaired driving, because testing technology is not as advanced as it is with alcohol.

Moe's driving history

Sask. Party Leader Scott Moe announced Wednesday that he once faced impaired driving and fleeing the scene of an accident charges that were not previously known to the public. 

Moe, who is up for re-election in the Rosthern-Shellbrook electoral district and is running as leader of the Sask. Party in a provincial election for the first time, announced at a news conference that the accident occurred in 1994. 

"Those charges were later withdrawn because I was not impaired and did not leave the scene," Moe said.

Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili said news of the undisclosed charges against Moe was concerning.

"I think it's really important to be open and clear with the people of Saskatchewan. Now Mr. Moe has quite a lot more questions to answer and we'll see what he has to say," Meili said. 

He said there are questions about why Moe chose not to disclose the charges before. 

Sask. Party Leader Scott Moe disclosed on Wednesday that he received an impaired driving charge in 1994. It was eventually stayed. (CBC)

Murie approves of Moe's disclosure of his past. He says a lot has changed over the last 30 years when it comes to impaired driving.

"Impaired driving today is totally unacceptable. It's totally unacceptable for people that are elected to be charged with impaired driving," said Murie.

"What we want is full disclosure, which the premier has done on his past with impaired driving. And what we also look for is leadership on the issue," he said.

"And I have to commend the premier and the previous governments. They have done a lot in the field of impaired driving. And last year we were able to celebrate the lowest impaired driving deaths in Saskatchewan history."

Murie says an example of a politician not handling a DUI or similar incident correctly would be former premier of British Columbia, Gordon Campbell.

In January 2003, Campbell was arrested and pleaded no contest to driving under the influence of alcohol while on vacation in Hawaii. His blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit. But in Hawaii, drunk driving is a misdemeanor, not a a Criminal Code offence as it is in Canada.  

At the time, MADD Canada called for Campbell's resignation. He refused. 

"There was a lot of push [by MADD] to make him accountable. In fairness to Gordon Campbell, he was an alcoholic. He got treatment and never drank again. But he never dealt with the issue either, so I would give him a barely a passing grade," Murie said.

Murie says the now-former premier dealt with the issue personally, but never became an advocate in regards to drunk driving.

"He never talked about impaired driving. And even when impaired driving legislation was upgraded considerably in 2010, where he had an opportunity, he chose not to speak about it at all.

"So I think what the premier of Saskatchewan doing is a lot more credible as far as public disclosure, public honesty and opening himself up for that kind of debate on the impaired driving."

Meanwhile, NDP Leader Meili says the public would be better served if Moe would offer up more information on his past, rather than no longer taking questions about the 1994 incident. 

Earlier this year, the Sask. Party disclosed its candidates' previous convictions. 

The list showed that Moe faced separate convictions for impaired driving in 1992 and for an incident in 1997 when he failed to stop at a rural intersection near Shellbrook, Sask., and collided with a car carrying 39-year-old Joanne Balog and her son Steve. 

Joanne died in the crash. Moe was given a fine for driving without due care and attention. 

The NDP has also revealed the previous criminal convictions of its candidates in the upcoming election.

Five of its candidates have convictions related to impaired driving.

Struggles and improvements

Bonny Stevenson and her husband, Craig, lost their son Quinn to an impaired driver in 2013. Today, Stevenson works with MADD Saskatoon to advocate against impaired driving, including providing aid to a Saskatoon Police mobile alcohol and drug testing unit.

She says she is always surprised by the amount of impaired drivers caught by road checkpoint in the province today. 

"Quinn was a hockey referee, and he was often out very late at night reffing. I would always worry about him on the road at those times. But yet Quinn ended up getting killed at 4:30 in the morning on his way to work. That's something we really want people to hear loud and clear, that impaired drivers are everywhere at any time of the day," said Stevenson. 

Craig and Bonny Stevenson's 17-year-old son Quinn Stevenson was killed by a drunk driver August 2013. (Trent Peppler/CBC)

Still, Stevenson says she has seen an improvement in the province over the years.

"I think we're doing a better job of getting that message out there," said Stevenson. 

Stevenson says she struggles sometimes when she hears about people's history with DUIs, including those in political positions, but she also values honesty.

"I think I'm a person of compassion and believe that there's good in everyone. We've all made mistakes. A lot of us have made those mistakes and not have gotten caught. So I think it's really easy to judge when you don't have a record on your file."

Breathalyzer tests are used to measure alcohol impairment in drivers. (Submitted by Saskatchewan RCMP)

Saskatoon defence lawyer Brian Pfefferle echoes Stevenson's thoughts. 

"We have a number of people on both sides of our major parties that have had previous run-ins with impaired driving. But having represented approximately 1,000 people charged with this offence, I think that whether you're running for provincial politics or other things, it's these people can serve as good role models for it," Pfefferle said. 

"I don't think we should lock the door and throw away the key with people that are charged with criminal offences."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura is a reporter and associate producer for CBC Saskatchewan. She is also the community reporter for CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories. Laura previously worked for CBC Vancouver. Some of her former work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, NYLON Magazine, VICE Canada and The Tyee. Follow Laura on Twitter: @MeLaura. Send her news tips at laura.sciarpelletti@cbc.ca

With files from Bryan Eneas

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