TIRF: The Facts about Impaired Driving in Canada

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By Robyn Robertson, M.C.A., President and CEO, Traffic Injury Research Foundation

November, 2011 – Impaired driving has consistently ranked as the leading road safety concern among more than 80% of Canadians for the past decade and was only surpassed for the first time by concern about texting and driving in 2010.

And the public’s concern about impaired driving is certainly warranted. Drinking and driving continues to be one of the largest contributors to the road crash problem in many countries around the world; in Canada, alcohol has been a factor in 30% to 40% of road deaths for the past 15 years.

What is less well understood is that considerable progress has been made in reducing impaired driving. Although the percentage of alcohol-related road deaths in Canada has hovered between 30% and 35% for the past decade, data released this week show that the actual number of Canadians who died in traffic crashes involving a drinking driver has declined from 1,296 in 1995 to 714 in 2009. During the same period in Alberta, alcohol-related driving fatalities fell from 182 to 145. So while the number of persons killed in crashes involving a drinking driver remains unacceptable, the problem is getting smaller.

Research has also demonstrated that not all drunk drivers are the same and there are different types of people who drink and drive. To illustrate, two parts of the problem that are a particular source of concern are repeat drunk drivers and young impaired drivers. Each of these populations is unique and requires different approaches and solutions to address it.

First, research on repeat drunk drivers has clearly established that these offenders are persistent in their behaviour. They routinely drive at very high BACs, may have a history of prior convictions, and they often continue to drive even when their driver’s licence has been suspended or revoked. To better demonstrate these differences, in Alberta of the 41% of fatally injured drivers who tested positive for alcohol, the vast majority (86%) had a BAC over .08% and 63% had a BAC in excess of 0.16%. In sharp contrast, just 14% of fatally injured drinking drivers had a BAC between 0.01% and 0.08%. Proven strategies that are used across the country to target this population include alcohol ignition interlock devices which prevent these drivers from starting their vehicle after consuming alcohol, more intensive remedial licensing and/or alcohol treatment programs, fines, probation supervision and jail.

In contrast, young impaired drivers pose a different problem. These drivers are at serious risk due to their age, their inexperience driving, and their inexperience drinking. To illustrate, sober young drivers aged 16 have a crash risk that is 4x greater than drivers in their mid-30s and 9x greater than drivers aged 45. The presence of young passengers in the vehicle also increases crash risk, and the effects are additive (i.e., two passengers increase crash risk more than one passenger). And, young drivers are also at risk for fatigued driving as youth require more sleep than adults and they are frequently out late at night with friends. So, when these factors are combined with inexperience driving and even low levels of alcohol, the results can be deadly.

In an effort to better protect young drivers from crashing, jurisdictions across Canada, including Alberta, have introduced graduated driver licensing programs that place restrictions on young drivers until they develop more driving experience. Research tells us that some of the most effective features of these programs are night time driving restrictions (starting as early as 9 pm), passenger restrictions, and more parental involvement and supervision of young drivers to ensure they adhere to these restrictions.

There is no silver bullet that can be applied to all offenders and produce strong results. In fact, there is a considerable body of research that clearly demonstrates that placing lower risk offenders in more intensive sanctions can do more harm than good. Programs that are designed to target persistent drinking drivers are not appropriate for those who rarely drink and drive and may actually increase their likelihood of repeat offending.

In conclusion, a continuum of strategies that target different levels of offender risk, combined with public education and awareness efforts, as well as strong enforcement to increase likelihood of detection, is needed. Too often initiatives fail to achieve their goals because they are not consistently applied to offenders. Certainty is a prerequisite for deterrence, and without certainty offenders are unlikely to be deterred. Hence, proper allocations to support laws and programs are essential to realize the results promised by research.

For individuals seeking more information about impaired driving, please consult Change the Conversation (www.changetheconversation.ca), a national public education program on impaired driving developed by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (www.tirf.ca), with financial support from the Brewers Association of Canada (http://brewers.ca). More information about impaired driving can be found in TIRF’s Road Safety Monitor Reports and can be downloaded from (www.tirf.ca). More information about alcohol ignition interlocks can be found at (www.tirf.ca). The Traffic Injury Research Foundation’s website also has a Young and New Driver Resource Centre that serves as a comprehensive source of information about young and new driver safety (www.yndrc.tirf.ca).

About TIRF

Established in 1964, TIRF’s mission is to reduce traffic-related deaths and injuries. As a national, independent, charitable road safety institute, TIRF designs, promotes, and implements effective programs and policies, based on sound research. TIRF is a registered charity and depends on grants, contracts, and donations to provide services for the public. Visit us online at www.tirf.ca.