TIRF: A Continuum of Strategies Needed to Reduce Impaired Driving

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

January, 2012 – In the past several weeks there has been much discussion and debate around the use of administrative penalties as a strategy to reduce impaired driving. As such, it is important to provide some clarity regarding the research on this topic and the use of these penalties in a broader continuum of strategies to reduce impaired driving.

Addressing social problems through public policy and legislation is never black and white. The same is true for dealing effectively with impaired driving. Several weeks ago the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) wrote a Letter to the Editor following a number of high profile and tragic crashes in Alberta. The purpose of the letter was to inform discussion around the impaired driving problem in Canada generally and reinforce two important facts. First, that Canada is making progress in reducing the problem despite perceptions to the contrary. The prevalence of drinking and driving has dropped dramatically since the 1980s as social norms have shifted from acceptance of to disdain for the behaviour. To illustrate, today more than 80% of Canadians report they don’t drink and drive and a majority also rank impaired driving as a priority road safety problem. Second, in the face of the tragedies in Alberta, it is important to understand that progress is being made as evidenced by the continued reductions in the number of persons killed in fatal crashes involving a drinking driver.

However, this is not to suggest that ongoing efforts to address the problem are not necessary. Fatalities in which drivers have consumed alcohol remain at unacceptable levels and more work is needed. Of considerable importance, the Letter was designed to provide a “big picture” perspective on the impaired driving issue and to place different aspects of the problem in a broader context along with critical elements associated with strategies to deal with the problem. A key message involved the importance of penalties reflecting the different levels of risk posed by drivers such that lower risk drivers receive lower level interventions and higher risk drivers receive more intensive interventions. Another message focused on the need to ensure that laws are consistently enforced and appropriate sanctions applied to offenders. Hence, distinct strategies (i.e., administrative and criminal) to deal with different types of drivers are needed and each process must also be manageable. Finally, it demonstrated that lower blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) drivers are a smaller part of the fatal crash problem relative to drivers with BACs in excess of the legal limit and it is important not to lose sight of this fact when dealing with the problem.

It is for this reason that jurisdictions have implemented a comprehensive approach to dealing with the problem and many jurisdictions in Canada, including Alberta, have a “good structure” in place that involves core components such as administrative penalties for low BAC drivers, zero BAC laws for young drivers, and escalating criminal penalties for drivers over the legal BAC limit of .08.

Moving forward, the challenge is to continually review the pieces of that broader strategy and identify opportunities for improvements to help strengthen the processes currently in place. As such, it is standard practice for jurisdictions to routinely introduce enhancements to impaired driving laws and programs and this has been the case for more than a decade.

It should be underscored that the Letter was not designed as a specific commentary on the use of administrative sanctions per se by individual jurisdictions, or to be used as a basis to argue either for or against them. It was also not intended as a critique of Alberta’s proposed law, the specific contents of which were introduced after the Letter was written, although it has recently been interpreted as such.

It is important to recognize that the use of administrative penalties for low BAC drivers in Canada is not a new phenomenon. Research shows that drivers at low BACs do have an elevated risk of crashing relative to sober drivers, although it is lower than the risk posed by much higher BAC drivers. Based on this research, most jurisdictions have applied administrative penalties, including 12 and 24 hour roadside suspensions since 1975. The use of lower administrative BAC limits by provincial and territorial governments is within their authority and allows police officers to protect the public and take reasonable steps to remove drivers from the road who have an elevated crash risk due to consumption of lower levels of alcohol, yet who have a BAC under the Federal legal limit of .08 and whose behaviour does not warrant criminal penalties.

Historically, public awareness about the presence of administrative laws and sanctions has been quite low. National polls such as the TIRF Road Safety Monitor reveal that only a small percentage of Canadians are aware of such laws, and a much smaller percentage knows the actual administrative BAC limit in their jurisdiction. More recently, as a number of jurisdictions have taken steps to strengthen the use of these interventions, awareness of, and attention to the use of administrative penalties has grown.

As such, there are some important caveats that must be kept in mind. The rationale behind efforts to better track low BAC drivers and identify those low BAC drivers who persist in this behavior is to create opportunities to prevent impaired driving by intervening earlier. It should be emphasized that the goal is not to prevent people from consuming responsible amounts of alcohol in moderation during the course of an evening out with friends.

More importantly, the use of administrative penalties for lower risk offenders has a place within the continuum of strategies applied to different types of impaired drivers. However, the presence of these penalties should not erode the focus on, or the available resources for dealing with, those who drive with a BAC in excess of the legal limit of .08, who pose a much greater risk to the public, and who are responsible for more deaths on our roads. These higher risk offenders should consistently be subject to escalating criminal sanctions as the level of offending increases, and administrative penalties should not be substituted in lieu of criminal penalties for dealing with these offenders.

So what is to be learned from all this? First, we are making progress in dealing with the impaired driving problem as a whole, but this is not to suggest that we can rest on our laurels because continued efforts are needed to make further gains. Second, a comprehensive approach is needed that includes targeted strategies designed to address the different levels of risk that are posed by different types of offenders. Jurisdictions have made much progress in this area and continued efforts to strength various components of the continuum as appropriate should be both expected and welcomed. Finally, it is important to place a greater emphasis on those who commit criminal offences and who demonstrate a propensity to persist in high risk behaviours, without losing sight of the fact that lower BAC drivers still pose some risk and also need to be managed accordingly, particularly if such behaviour persists.

It cannot be overlooked that the development of laws and policies to address impaired driving is never black and white. As researchers, our job is to inform discussion by sharing available research that provides insight into the problem and that is relevant to inform decision-making. Governments have a more challenging task in trying to reconcile the multitude of factors involved in the development of strategies to address the issue. Research must be balanced with operational practices within and across agencies, available resources, jurisdictional conditions, economic factors and public perceptions. And, the development of laws and policies is only the first step in the process. The implementation of laws and policies is pivotal to better gauge their effects, and research is ultimately needed to measure effectiveness. So it’s difficult to predict outcomes in advance of these latter steps.

Regardless of where you ultimately sit on the issue of administrative and criminal penalties, it should not be construed as an “either/or” proposition. Both have value and can contribute to reductions in the impaired driving problem.

On a positive note, there are three important benefits that have emerged out of the recent debate surrounding Alberta’s initiative to strengthen impaired driving laws. First, it has been a reminder that we cannot be complacent about the issue and that political leadership combined with a comprehensive approach to the problem that is informed by research can help us achieve the gains we are seeking.

Second, it has shown us that more education and awareness is much needed. Impaired driving is a complex problem with many facets. Increased understanding of the problem can benefit all Canadians by informing debate and discussion around how and when to best apply strategies to address it. In particular, the public can benefit from a better understanding of the amount of alcohol needed to reach different BAC levels and what is meant by terms such as “responsible drinking” and “moderate consumption” in relation to current and new drinking and driving laws.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, there is not a single solution to the problem. Governments, the public, businesses and the alcohol industry are seeking evidence-based strategies to keep all drivers safe on the roads. The use of a continuum of strategies designed to address different types of drink drivers ranging from low BAC and lower risk drivers through to the most persistent repeat offenders who drink and drive at very high BACs and pose a much greater risk to the public can help to reduce impaired driving.

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.