Will COVID-19 factor into road safety during the holiday season?
It goes without saying that Yuletide celebrations will be a bit more complicated this year. A coronavirus pandemic currently riding a formidable second wave has the Alberta government calling for a 15-person limit on social gatherings, from family settings to office parties. Assuming everyone in the province follows those protocols, the hope is that the number of infected cases will decrease. Contingent with that aspiration is that the levels of impaired-driving incidents—the leading criminal cause of injury and death in Canada—will also significantly decrease during a time of year when drunk driving is more than a going concern.
One Statistics Canada report from September supports that line of thinking. When news of the pandemic compelled the federal and provincial government to go into lockdown in March—closing bars, restaurants, public events and other non-essential services—impaired driving infractions plummeted by 14 percent during a three-month period ending in June.
But in the wake of the Alberta government’s May decision to ease pandemic restrictions and reopen the economy, those infraction numbers started to creep back up again. During Thanksgiving weekend, a precursor to Christmas celebrations, Alberta RCMP reported four vehicle-related fatalities, one less than reported during the same weekend in 2019. Authorities also issued 96 drunk driving charges, a slight decrease from 105 from the same period last year.
At first glance, those Thanksgiving results indicate marginal improvements, but a bigger picture hints that those incidents and infractions almost parallel fluctuations in Alberta’s COVID-19 casualty count. Daily active infected cases in the Edmonton zone (which includes St. Albert) in mid-April were as high as 270, a month after the provincial government declared a health emergency, but steadily declined to as low as 60 by mid-May.
Rolling the Dice
However, reopening the economy has since seen daily coronaviruses in this zone escalate to more than 2,600 active daily cases by November, the highest tally in the province which that same month has reported more than 35,000 overall cases. Through it all, the virus has also claimed 119 deaths in the region, barely a third of Alberta’s death toll.
Despite masking and physical-distancing guidelines put in place, the provincial government is blaming several social gatherings as the major cause of the coronavirus increases. “COVID-19 loves parties,” said Premier Jason Kenney at a November news conference. “And so, please, if you’re doing that, knock it off.”
Parties may not only be coronavirus culprits, but they’ve long since been associated with impaired driving. Organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) are concerned about a contingent of Yuletide revelers who might not only ignore the pandemic, but could still want to roll the dice while inebriated once the keys turn the ignition.
“While the usual holiday gatherings and celebrations may be different this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the risk for impaired driving remains,” said Jaymie-Lyne Hancock, national president of MADD Canada. “Driving impaired is just never worth the risk.”
Those risks can lead to fatal consequences. Statistics Canada has reported that impaired driving annually claims between 1,250 and 1,500 lives across the country. Alberta Collision Statistics 2016, the last known comprehensive study of road safety conducted by the province, revealed that 16.3 percent of fatal collisions that year were attributed to drinking and driving. Additionally, of 656 alcohol-related collisions involving casualties, 51 of them were fatal. By far, the leading demographic responsible for those incidents were males between 18 and 24 years of age.
Drunk-driving motives may vary from overconfidence to recklessness but one officer believes those motorists are just fooling themselves. “It’s a denial,” says Const. Shelley Nasheim from the Parkland RCMP. “They’ll admit they’ve had something, but they’ll never admit that they have been drinking all night.”
Keeping the roads safe during the holidays is a tough enough task for the RCMP, but with a pandemic a going concern, front-line officers at check stops risk getting the coronavirus in situations where social distancing and other precautions are impossible to follow. Mitigating the chance of infection, officers will be wearing masks, making the experience of being pulled over even more unnerving.
“Some people may be uncomfortable with a police officer approaching them with a mask on,” said the RCMP in August. “We want to make sure that the people in the communities we serve know they can ask to see police identification, if it is safe to do so.”
Besides being surrounded by masked cops, drivers at check stops could also be subject to a mandatory alcohol screening if officers have reasonable suspicion to administer one, a stipulation implemented in 2018. Any refusal to take the test comes with the same consequences as an impaired driving charge.
Additionally, a law passed by the Alberta government in July allows first-time offenders who aren’t involved in incidents involving death or bodily harm to avoid criminal charges, although they could receive a fine of up to $2,000 and lose their cars for 30 days.
Besides alcohol, enforcers also have to consider the use of cannabis, given that 13.2 percent of Canadian drivers admitted getting behind the wheel within two hours of using the drug. But cannabis properties, which impairs concentration and reduces reaction time, have also shown to be deadly. MADD performed a study that tested the blood of fatally injured drivers from 1990- 2014. In the final year of the study, 41 per cent of the drivers tested had cannabis in their systems.
Taking into account the dual culprits of alcohol and cannabis while a pandemic is going on apparently won’t deter officers from trying to keep the roads safe. Since 2015, St. Albert RCMP have been particularly aggressive in that objective by setting up several check-stop “blitzes” throughout the city. “We were out in full force with check stops throughout the holiday season,” said St. Albert RCMP Const. M-J Burroughs. “Our traffic force as well as our general duty members were actively doing check stops.”
In December that first year, the RCMP noted a dramatic decrease in impaired driving charges. Of the hundreds of vehicles stopped during the 2019 holiday season, the police charged six drivers for alcohol impairment and issued four roadside suspensions. By almost any standard, those are impressive results, but there will always be a going concern that not everyone is getting the message, pandemic notwithstanding.
“During this time we remind everyone to drive sober,” said Rhonda Paterson, administrative assistant for the MADD Edmonton and area chapter, “as well as remember victims who have been killed or injured by an impaired driver.” t8n
THE HARD FACTS ON DRINKING AND DRIVING
On average in Alberta, one in five drivers involved in fatal collisions have been drinking prior to the collision. This compares to an average of about one in 20 drivers involved in injury collisions. As the severity of the collision increases, so does the likelihood the collision will involve a drinking driver.
On average each year almost 90 people were killed and 1,330 people were injured in collisions involving at least one driver who had consumed alcohol prior to the crash (2009-2013). In 2013, 80 people were killed and 1,133 were injured.
Every day, on average, four Canadians are killed and 175 are injured in impairment-related crashes.
(Source: MADD Canada)