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Impaired charges barely eased even as COVID cut traffic

By: Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Impaired driving charges on Southwestern Ontario roads barely dropped last year, despite the pandemic that cut traffic and even closed bars and restaurants, provincial police figures show.

The numbers have experts scratching their heads over how to get the message across about the dangers of drinking and driving.

In the area of western Ontario patrolled by the OPP, from Windsor to Tobermory and Sarnia to Haldimand County, impaired charges of all types fell by only six per cent to 2,092 in 2020, from 2,237 in 2019.

“That, honestly, is very concerning,” said Shawn Johnson, OPP West Region’s traffic and marine inspector. “In 2020, with reduced traffic volumes overall, we’re still on par for making the same number of violations.”

Provincewide, impaired charges dropped to 8,480 last year from 9,050 in 2019.

Though early pandemic lockdowns saw significantly less traffic on the roads, fewer social gatherings and shuttered restaurants and bars, Johnson said that hasn’t translated into a major overall dip in impaired driving.

Police are catching suspected impaired drivers at all hours of the day, even weekday mornings, he said.

“It’s astonishing that people are drinking and have somewhere they have to go in communities which have some degree of lockdown,” Johnson said. “We’re mystified.”

OPP stress monthly figures can fluctuate for many reasons. But the statistics suggest that early in the COVID-19 pandemic, from March to mid-April, there was a decrease in impaired charges, which picked up again during some summer months as virus-fighting restrictions eased.

Figures jumped 22 per cent in September from the year before, but fell sharply again in October (53 per cent), November (61 per cent) and December (62 per cent).

Some roadside sobriety checks, or RIDE programs, and targeted stops by police declined in the early days of the pandemic, as police refined how to safely interact with the public, but they picked up again in December, Johnson said.

“Did traffic stops go down? Yes, for sure they went down. But so did the traffic and volume. They kind of went down in harmony,” he said. “Once we regrouped, we didn’t take our foot off the gas. We never have.”

But Andrew Murie, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Canada, said police have stopped using a new power, mandatory alcohol screenings, amid COVID-19 safety concerns. Introduced in 2018, it lets officers demand a breath test during any traffic stop, whether or not they suspect the driver has consumed alcohol. Police haven’t yet gone back to using that power like they did before, he said.

“It is the most effective . . .  tool against impaired driving in the world, and we’re not using it right now,” Murie said, adding during the first full year it was used in 2019, impaired driving arrests in Canada rose by 19 per cent.

Murie said dangerous driving habits, including impaired driving, street racing and reckless driving, have been spurred on by the pandemic, which both reduced traffic volumes and increased overall alcohol and cannabis consumption.

“Behaviour changed early, and it just continued because there wasn’t enough enforcement to make people go back to their pre-pandemic ways,” he said.

Murie at first believed shutting bars and restaurants amid the pandemic would reduce impaired driving, but he said the habits behind it just moved into the home.

While he said he supported temporarily halting the use of the mandatory alcohol screenings last spring, when information about the virus was limited, Murie said there’s “no reason” police can’t resume using that tool now.

“Police need to go back to enforcing the laws and using mandatory alcohol screening,” he said. “If you want to make a difference tomorrow, start using it.”

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