A Hard Nut to Crack – The Chronic Drinking Driver

This archived article is from January 2006. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

The Canada Safety Council is a sponsor of the Road Safety Monitor, a Canada-wide telephone survey of Canadians drivers. In its December 2005 report on drinking and driving, 15 percent of respondents — an estimated 3.2 million — admitted to driving after drinking within the past month. Two-thirds did so once or twice in the previous month but close to 16 percent of drinking drivers (about 2.3 percent of all drivers) had done so more than four times.

Moreover, 6.7 percent said they had driven in the past year when they felt they were over the legal limit. That translates into 1.5 million drivers. Drivers aged 25 to 34 are the most likely to driver after drinking; 19 percent report doing so. A small group of drivers (less than three percent) accounted for 84 percent of all reported impaired driving trips.

The fact is that a few hard core drinking drivers cause most of the drunk driving problem in this country. High-BAC drivers (i.e. those with BACs over 0.15) represent about one per cent of the cars on the road at night and on weekends. Yet they account for nearly half of all drivers killed at those times.

These chronic offenders share several characteristics:

  • They drink frequently, and often to excess. Many are alcohol dependent.
  • They repeatedly drive after drinking.
  • When they drink and drive, their BAC is two to three times the legal limit.
  • Many have previously been convicted for impaired driving and have driven while suspended.
  • They resist changing their behavior, and are insensitive to anti-drinking-driving campaigns.
  • Canada's penalties for impaired driving, among the harshest in the developed world, do not deter them from drinking and driving.

The hard core drinking driver presents a complex and resistant safety challenge. He (most are men) does not believe his behavior poses a risk to his own safety or the safety of others. Those who study the problem say most of these offenders tend to have menial employment (if employed at all), low education and poor self esteem. Of all Quebec drivers convicted of criminal offenses such as those related to impaired driving, only two percent earn more than $50,000 a year. Forty-one percent earn less than $30,000 a year, and a full 43 percent have no income.

Public policy must continue to target this hard core group in order to make significant gains in the fight against impaired driving.

Rehabilitation is an important part of the solution, because most hard core offenders have an alcohol dependency problem. Remedial measures programs reduce the number of convictions for impaired driving, particularly when combined with licensing sanctions. Of 12,000 people who attended Ontario's remedial program in its first year, only one returned due to a subsequent conviction.

Other measures prevent the offender from driving while impaired. These include license suspensions, vehicle impoundment and alcohol ignition interlock.

An Evaluation of the Alberta Administrative Licence Suspension Program released in August 2005 found a 24 per cent drop in the number of repeat impaired drivers and a 19 per cent reduction in the number of repeat offenders involved in alcohol-related collisions that cause injury or death. The study also found there was a drop in the percentage of fatal collisions that involved drinking drivers, from 23 per cent before the licence suspension program came into effect to 19 per cent afterward.

The alcohol ignition interlock is a small breath-testing unit installed under the dash and linked to the vehicle's ignition system. To operate the vehicle, the driver must provide a breath sample. The Criminal Code of Canada allows reduction of the mandatory driving suspension for a first offence from one year to three months if the offender participates in an interlock program for the remainder of the one-year period. The device is installed at the offender's expense. Interlock programs reduce recidivism by as much as 90 per cent while the device is in the vehicle. Used in conjunction with rehabilitation they are proving to be a very effective countermeasure.

In 2003, road crashes involving a driver who had been drinking killed 902 people. This is down 30 percent from 1995, when there were 1,296 motor vehicle deaths involving a drinking driver - despite an 11 percent increase in the number of licensed drivers. Of the drinking-driving road fatalities, half (450) were drivers whose blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was over 0.08 - not innocent victims by anyone's definition. Many of these were in the hard core group.

In sharp contrast to Canada's progress, the number of impaired driving fatalities has not changed since 1994 in the United States. The fact fewer Canadians are being killed in crashes involving alcohol is encouraging, but we can't let our guard down.

Drunk driving still causes far too many unnecessary and preventable tragedies on our roads. The hard core drinking driver is the biggest challenge to further progress.