Confronting Impaired Driving Together

As a personal injury lawyer, I get great satisfaction from seeking justice and compensation for victims of a totally preventable tragedy, such as impaired driving. However, like my clients, I am always mindful that the justice system can never replace what has been lost, and I feel this acutely over the holiday season. Talking to parents, children, wives and husbands who have lost loved ones because of drinking and driving never gets any easier.

The awful truth is, if 2015 is like previous years, between 600 and 1,000 Canadians have just celebrated their last holiday season before they will be killed by an impaired driver.

Here are some of the most recent statistics:

• An estimated 1,082 impairment-related fatalities occurred on Canadian roads in 2010, according to MADD Canada;
• Over one-third of all traffic fatalities were impairment-related in 2010;
• In 2011, the rate of impaired driving increased for the fourth time in five years, up 2%, according to Statistics Canada;
• Police reported 90,277 impaired driving incidents in Canada in 2011;
• 82% of persons charged with drinking and driving are male;
• Impaired driving rates reported by police are substantially higher in rural than in urban areas, with a rate of 436 per 100,000 population in rural areas, as compared to 181 per 100,000 in urban areas (2011);
• Persons between 16 and 25 years of age comprised 13.6% of the population in 2010, but composed almost 33.4% of all alcohol-related traffic deaths that year;
• Drivers under 35 accounted for two-thirds of those accused of impaired driving causing death and injury in 2011;
• In 2008, more people were killed in impairment-related auto crashes than by homicide, at 635 to 611;
• Two-thirds of all reported impaired driving incidents occurred on weekends in 2011; and
• 50% of impaired driving incidents reported by police took place between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m.

There is hope. In 2011, the impaired driving rate was less than half of what it was in 1986. The overall trends in impairment related injuries and fatalities are substantially down in the same 25-year period. Still, with over 90,000 incidents of impaired driving in 2011 alone, there is obviously much work to be done.

Legal drinking drivers are those who drink and drive but remain under the legal limit. Studies show that legal drinking drivers are still at substantial risk of being involved in an accident. According to the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF), deterrence strategies, including high visibility enforcement, are generally successful for legal drinking drivers.

First time offenders compose a significant majority of impaired drivers according to U.S. and Canadian data. The data shows that two-thirds of such offenders are deterred by their encounters with the criminal justice system, and will not re-offend. Education also assists. A number of the one-third of people who do re-offend suffer from alcohol problems. TIRF believes that screening and/or assessments are necessary for first time offenders so that those with alcohol dependency can be identified and provided treatment at this stage.

High-risk, repeat offenders make up roughly 30% of impaired drivers. They are typified by high-Blood Alcohol Contents, histories of prior convictions, drinking problems and frequent impaired driving. Strategies for dealing with high risk offenders include a combination of punishment, surveillance and treatment. Behaviour change can be encouraged through the reinforcement of positive behavior.

From a personal standpoint, I cannot help but think about the many people I have encountered in my work who have lost those dearest to them because of impaired driving. In particular, I recall the heroism of a 39-year old Calgary mother, Linda Davey, whose last act was to push away the wheelchair of her quadriplegic teenage son as an SUV careened toward them. Her son suffered severe injuries, but lived. He wondered whether his mother would still be alive had she not had to push his wheelchair to save him. Linda’s young daughter was not physically injured, but watched her mother be crushed to death. Just minutes before the accident, the driver had staggered from the bar grossly intoxicated, a mere 1.1 kilometres from his home. Patrons called 911 but the accident occurred before police could arrive. The driver fled the scene, but was later arrested at his home. He had been driving without a licence, due to a prior suspension for impaired driving. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment, and ordered not to drive for ten years.

The debate about proper strategies for confronting impaired driving is likely to continue for some time. In my own view, a good place to start is to remember the victims, including those who are left behind. My hope is that if we all remember, and talk about it, there won’t be as many new ones this year.

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