TORONTO - With cases involving impaired motorists recently making headlines, experts say it will take comprehensive action — not simply heightened awareness — to address the persistent problem of drinking and driving.
Toronto city councillor Ana Bailao broke into tears during a news conference this week where she revealed she had pleaded guilty to driving with a blood alcohol level of .130 — well about the legal limit of .08.
Bailao was charged last October after police pulled her over for driving in the wee hours without her lights on. She accepted a 12-month driving ban and a $1,000 fine.
A day prior to Bailao's news conference, Maurice Larrivee was charged with drinking and driving for the 17th time after being nabbed by police in Sherbrooke, Que. The 69-year-old Quebec man was last charged with a DUI in 2005 when he lost his licence for five years.
"It's been a frustrating issue to see that it still occurs," said Evelyn Vingilis, professor with the Schulich School of Medicine at Western University in London, Ont. "We still have got a large number of impaired driving charges, and still a large number of crashes that occur."
Prior to 2007, the rate of impaired driving had been on a steady decline since the mid-1980s. But a recent release from Statistics Canada found that police reported an increase of impaired driving cases in 2011 with more than 90,000 that year — up by about 3,000 compared to 2010.
Despite the overall spike in the impaired driving rate, the rate of incidents of impaired driving causing death declined 29 per cent from 2010. The report found there were 121 incidents of impaired driving causing death in 2011 and an additional 839 incidents of impaired driving causing bodily harm.
Vingilis said organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving — along with a range of governmental and non-governmental initiatives — placed the subject of impaired driving front and centre in the 1980s.
But as other key issues surrounding vehicle safety — such as distracted driving and seatbelt use — have come to the forefront, impaired driving has receded of late from the public agenda, she noted.
"Going back 40 years ago, I was of the generation that certainly became very well-inculcated with the dangers of impaired driving," said Vingilis, a member of the Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals.
"There would scarcely be a week where you wouldn't have MADD presenting information about people who had lost their lives, lost family members and so on. So it was a very important issue that was in the minds of everyone. We don't have that anymore."
Vingilis said while the subject of impaired driving still surfaces around Christmastime, it's not one that the public hears about often during other times of the year.
"Even though the problem hasn't gone away, for many people, if they don't hear about it in the media, they think the problem's gone away; they think there's another problem that has come to a fore."
Vingilis said education in and of itself hasn't been shown to change behaviour. But a multi-faceted approach encompassing education, enforcement, treatment and rehabilitation among a range of interventions has shown to be successful, she added.
MADD Canada CEO Andrew Murie said he is a proponent of tougher measures to crack down on impaired drivers like those in place in British Columbia. Motorists in the province who fail or refuse a breath test or register a blood alcohol content level of .05 or higher could face fines, licence suspensions and have their vehicles impounded.
Murie said he'd also like to see the introduction of random breath testing, but he acknowledged that no one measure will be a cure-all for the problem.
"A lot of people (drive while impaired) because their fear of getting caught is pretty minuscule. And even when they do come across a sobriety checkpoint...a lot of them don't fear the sobriety checkpoint," he said.
"I've sat around the table with a lot of impaired drivers, and they just think it's bad luck if they get caught."
Murie said he does believe an awareness campaign has a role to play provided that it's one centred on enforcement.
"That changes behaviours, especially with those people that are more inclined to do this."
Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief public health officer, said impaired driving remains a significant problem but one that requires a multi-pronged approach.
"Impaired driving is just one of a number of outcomes that can happen from the inappropriate use of alcohol," said Strang, a member of the National Alcohol Strategy Advisory Committee. "It's not just people who are addicted to alcohol — it's lots of people who are binge drinking... and may choose to drive."
Following the alcohol-related death of an Acadia University student in 2011, Strang said both he and his staff have been working with universities in Nova Scotia to examine ways to decrease binge drinking.
"Certainly, the work we've done in talking with youth and young adults in Nova Scotia, they're well aware of what the penalties are (involving impaired driving). For many of them, though, the risk of them getting caught in their mental calculation is not very high — not high enough to get them to change behaviour," Strang said.
"It comes to the point that I'm not sure more investment in advertising and information is really where we should be focusing. It's focusing ... more on increasing the likelihood of getting caught, increasing the penalties, and then the broader policy issues which have a general impact on how alcohol is used."
Part of that change stems from creating a different environment around how young people use alcohol, taking steps to control its accessibility and availability and how heavily it's advertised, Strang said.
"We've changed the social norms around the use of tobacco by addressing access, smoke-free places, advertising by the industry, using price as a lever," he said.
"If we're going to make substantive changes in the impacts of alcohol, we need to be prepared to look at those same kind of initiatives for alcohol."