Thunder Bay

Expert draws link between Ontario's support of liquor industry, high impaired driving numbers

High impaired driving numbers in places like Thunder Bay, Ont. are a consequence of the provincial government's efforts to support the liquor industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, a Canadian researcher says.

Minimum price on alcohol, highly-visible enforcement efforts among ways to curb impaired driving

A substance use researcher says when it comes to rising impaired driving numbers in Thunder Bay and elsewhere in the province, the Ontario government's support of the liquor industry during the pandemic is likely a contributing factor. (Christina Jung / CBC)

High impaired driving numbers in places like Thunder Bay, Ont. are a consequence of the provincial government's efforts to support the liquor industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, a Canadian researcher says.

Tim Stockwell, a scientist with the University of Victoria's Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (and also a professor of psychology at the university), said alcohol being so easy to access, coupled with people working from home, has likely contributed to an increase in impaired driving charges being laid by police in Canada.

"During the last year, there's pretty good evidence that in many parts of Canada, consumption of alcohol has increased during the lockdowns," he said. "Given that's the case, it's not surprising to me that there's more impaired driving because there's more drinking going on."

Stockwell said some people are developing heavy drinking habits as they work from home, and have easy access to alcohol, which they can have delivered to their door.

"There'll be a lot of people drinking throughout the day not having to show up at a workplace," he said. "Not having necessary to be in a good state, not having to worry about people smelling their breath because they're working from home."

"And so all hours of day and night, if people are driving, there's going to be more people at risk of driving impaired, and being caught doing that."

Thunder Bay police recently announced they'd charged 299 people with impaired driving-related offences in 2020, up from 204 in 2019.

Stockwell said the low price of alcohol in Ontario is a factor, as well, especially since people have more disposable income due to the pandemic.

"People think alcohol in Canada is expensive," he said. "You can always find really cheap products ... around about a dollar per standard drink, and even cheaper."

Stockwell said putting a minimum price on alcohol may help curb consumption, and by extension, the number of people driving while impaired by alcohol.

"Minimum unit pricing is a policy being introduced around the world," he said. "There's lots of evidence coming from Canada that this is the best, most effective policy for reducing hazardous drinking."

But other measures should be taken, too, Stockwell said, including not privatizing the liquor industry, as well as "restricting hours of sale, restricting the places, not selling alcohol in grocery stores," he said. "And then, there's a range of other things about restrictions on marketing and advertising of alcohol."

However, Stockwell noted there's little appetite from the Ontario government to place restrictions on the availability of alcohol.

"In Ontario, the government has bent over backwards to support the liquor industry during the [COVID-19] restrictions, to make it as easy as possible for people to purchase and receive alcohol," he said. "And so these are some of the consequences."

Police have a role to play, as well, when it comes to enforcing impaired driving laws.

"That's about highly visible road checks, roadblocks, flashing lights, not done secretly in back streets or whatever, but really visible," he said. "It should be the case that every driver is tested at least once or twice every year, that it's just a routine thing."

"It just affects the likelihood you're going to take that risk, because when you're under the influence of alcohol, your ability to weigh up risks and benefits is affected," Stockwell said. "That's how deterrence works. It's particularly at the point where you're planning and thinking before you start drinking, because some of your judgment goes out the window once you've started."

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