This week, in an Ottawa courtroom, John Tobin pleaded guilty to killing a good friend while drunk behind the wheel of his truck two days before Christmas. He was doing “doughnuts” in a city parkade, when Alex Zolpis was dragged underneath and twisted into the drive shaft.
The story made news because Mr. Tobin is the 24-year-old son of a former Newfoundland premier. But the crime itself was tragically ordinary, as even the accused understood, offering a statement in the sobering shock of his arrest: “I drank. I drove. Now someone’s dead.”
In truth, this week was rife with allegations about people who drank and drove till someone died. In Calgary, a 22-year-old woman is on trial, accused of being impaired when she drove into a tree and killed the friend she was driving home from a pizza joint. A 16-year-old girl in Pelican Narrows, Sask., flipped a truck jammed with eight other teens on the highway. None wore a seatbelt; an 18-year-old died.
In Surrey, B.C., the family of a 22-year-old killed two weeks ago by an allegedly drunk driver started a petition for tougher sentences for the offence.
They advocate the kind of “substantial jail time” the Crown now seeks for Mr. Tobin.
And of course, unless we get very lucky, there will be more sad stories by Monday, it being Victoria Day, the summer-launching “two-four” weekend traditionally celebrated with cold beer and cottage parties.
Drunk driving remains the leading cause of criminal death in Canada. The number of people killed by drunk drivers, averaging about 800 a year, is significantly down from the 1,296 victims in 1995, but the decline has slowed in the last decade.
In 2009, the latest year for which national statistics are available, police reported about 85,000 cases of impaired driving – notable because it was the third consecutive year in which charges increased, after nearly 25 years of decline.
Indeed, from 2006 to 2009, the number of recorded drunk-driving incidents jumped about 16 per cent. Some provinces, such as Manitoba, recorded much larger increases, nearly 30 per cent; elsewhere, as in Ontario, the change was marginal.
It could be that police are getting better at catching drunks on the road, or investing more resources in doing so. But the fact remains that despite an overall drop in the crime rate, drunk driving remains a stubbornly persistent issue.
Why, after all this time and public education, have some Canadians failed to learn their limits? What is stopping these drivers from leaving their keys at home?
“It was negative-35 outside, and it was literally 500 metres,” recalls J.B., a 26-year-old Ottawa man, describing a time he drove home after downing seven pints of beer – an amount he admits undoubtedly put him over the legal limit.
“I went, ‘Uh, it’s really cold,’ and I drove home.” Travelling such a short distance, he assumed nothing would happen, though in the morning, he realized he should have walked.
Still, he protests, “It’s not like I was stumbling outside drunk.”
That kind of defensiveness is part of the crux of the problem, says Tim Stockwell, a psychology professor at the University of Victoria and director of the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. But simpler still, we are a society of enthusiastic drinkers that’s also car-dependent.
“This is not an area where education really works. You’re just pushing upstream against strong forces,” he says. “We need to drive. We like to drink. It’s difficult and inconvenient to not do the things we like and need to do.”
A fatal guessing game
Since 1978, a Nova Scotia man named Terry Naugle has racked up 23 impaired-driving and related offences, earning him infamy as one of the most persistent drunk drivers in Canada. Most recently he drew an eight-year sentence for fleeing the scene of an accident.
There’s a prevailing stereotype that chronic alcoholics like him are the main perpetrators of drunk driving – and certainly they are a significant factor.
But Robert Solomon, a University of Western Ontario law professor and director of legal policy for Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada (MADD), says research has shown that at least one-third of all drunk driving fatalities are caused by teenagers and 20-somethings, overwhelmingly young men, usually on drinking binges.
Commonly, the driver is in the company of friends who are just as drunk.
Another one-third are more middle-aged Canadians who have tied one on and gotten behind a wheel, often having never been in trouble with the law before – the police officers, schoolteachers and politicians who make headlines.
This last group, Prof. Solomon says, is even more dangerous than alcoholics: The guy on his way home from the office party who stood at the open bar all night is more likely to kill someone on the road than the expert drinker who can hold his rum-and-Cokes.
Driving home after a few drinks is a bit of a guessing game – and one played, points out Thomas Brown, an assistant professor of psychiatry at McGill University, when a person is least able to think rationally.
According to a survey conducted last December by the Canadian Automobile Association, one in four Canadians said they drove at least once in the previous year believing they were at or over the legal blood-alcohol limit.
“You are not allowed to steal a little bit,” says Norm Boxall, the Ottawa lawyer who represented Mr. Tobin, though he declined to discuss his case. “But drinking and driving is legal in Canada. It’s only illegal to drink too much.”
That grey area lends itself to drivers chancing it – weighing out the law of averages, since statistically the chance of getting into an accident on the way home are small.
“Decent people think they are not going to drink too much,” says Alfred Mele, a philosophy professor at Florida State University who studies rational decision-making. “This time they’ll just have one drink an hour and then they can drive home safely. But they fool themselves there, too.”
Drivers get drunk at different speeds, depending on factors such as weight and gender. And often they fail to consider other factors that can make them a danger on the road, says McGill’s Dr. Brown, speaking from Belgium, where he’s attending a conference on impaired-driving research.
In a lab simulation, his team has found that, even among drivers who have consumed only small doses of alcohol, sleepiness or distracting passengers can raise impairment above the legal level. (Equally concerning, but harder to detect or control, are illicit drugs or prescribed medications.)
Discipline and punish
In the last year, provinces such as British Columbia have come out with stiffer penalties, such as allowing police to seize a vehicle when the driver’s caught with a blood-alcohol level of 0.05 per cent – which is below the legal limit of 0.08 laid out in the Criminal Code.
This month in B.C., two men with repeated convictions were the first to see their vehicles permanently seized by the province. Civil libertarians and the hospitality industry have objected, but statistics suggest a drop in incidents since the measures were introduced.
Last August, Ontario – which has the lowest impaired-driving rates in the country – introduced legislation prohibiting those aged 21 and under from driving after drinking any alcohol at all.
Groups such as MADD continue to make the case for following countries like Australia and Germany and lowering the legal limit to 0.05.
Concerned about overwhelming the courts, a parliamentary committee in 2009 rejected this idea.
Instead it recommended random roadside breathalyzer tests – an approach Ottawa is now discussing with the provinces. In parts of Australia where this program is widely in effect, says Victoria’s Dr. Stockwell, a driver can expect to be stopped and tested twice a year, and the roadside checks are advertised, to raise their profile.
But Robert Strang, the Chief Public Health officer in Nova Scotia and the co-author of a significant report on the subject earlier this year, suggests that there also needs to be a societal shift in how Canadians handle their booze.
“Overuse of alcohol is really a cultural norm,” he says, especially among young people, among whom binge drinking appears to be increasing.
For one thing, pricing makes it cheaper to get a buzz on vodka or rum, with their higher alcohol levels, than from wine or beer.
For another, sponsorship by alcohol companies is nearly ubiquitous at sports events: A University of Minnesota study, published in January, found that at least one in 12 sports fans leave the game drunk. In fact it’s likely higher, since many people the researchers approached refused to be included in the study. “They’ve got one thing on their mind,” said its author, Darin Erickson – “to beat the traffic and get home.”
Repeat offenders: Not only drunks, but also the disorderly
Still, Dr. Brown’s research has also identified a subset of drunk drivers who are more likely to do it repeatedly and unlikely to be deterred by stiffer penalties and education.
While remediation for repeat offenders (roughly one-third of those arrested) often focuses on treating an alcohol problem, a significant portion of them are not alcoholics. They’re just people unwilling to leave the car home when they go out and know they are likely to be drinking.
“We implicitly assume that people are rational and that if we increase the punishments and deterrence, people will do the right thing,” says Dr. Brown. “Our take-home is that the people we should be most worried about don’t think the way [most people] think.”
In his research (the subject of a paper now awaiting publication) he found through experiments and brain scans that this group of repeat drunk drivers seems to have persistent problems with decision making, planning skills and memory.
They also seem to have significantly lower responses to stress. The average person, when given a difficult test or made to give a speech in public, will have a spike in levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, followed by a gradual drop. In Dr. Brown’s testing, the cortisol levels in repeat impaired drivers barely budged at all.
For this group, then, getting pulled over and arrested by police may not be the memory-making, terrifying experience that teaches other drivers a lesson.
In interviews, Dr. Brown says, offenders in this subcategory often say things like, “I just forgot I shouldn’t do it. I forgot how bad it was when I got arrested.”
Instead, they focus on the short-term reward (the convenience, say, of driving themselves to the bar), even if, as Dr. Brown says, “that small reward has big consequences.”
In neuropsychological testing, the brains of these repeat offenders often look similar to problem gamblers.
Since punitive sentence fail to deter these people, they are more likely to be influenced by incentives. For instance, Dr. Brown suggests, they may agree to installing an interlock device, requiring a driver to provide a breath sample before the car will turn on, if it means lower insurance rates and a reduction in fines. (Ontario introduced a law last August allowing first-time offenders to reduce their license suspension if they install the device.)
Dr. Brown concedes that “anything with the whiff of a reward” may be unpalatable to the public. But one reason broader campaigns are facing diminishing returns may be that they’re failing to reach the niche of the population likely to cause more accidents.
In addition, as Florida’s Prof. Mele points out, there are stubborn problems of physical space and infrastructure that keep North America’s impaired-driving rates elevated relative, for example, to Europe’s – even though average alcohol consumption in most European countries is somewhat higher than it is here.
In countries such as Norway and Britain, Prof. Mele observes, where impaired driving is viewed is seen “as disgusting,” mass transportation is also more efficient, giving partiers a viable alternative not as accessible in most parts of North America.
Still, the most effective method for reducing impaired driving remains a set of approaches that makes most people leave their keys at home because they feel extremely likely to get caught – thereby trumping the convenience of zipping home in the car on a few beers.
“It would be a lovely world if we could all agree this is the right thing to do, and educate each other,” says Prof. Stockwell. “It doesn’t work like that.”
Erin Anderssen is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.