About the Program
Magnitude & Characteristics


1. How many people die in motor vehicle crashes involving a drinking driver each year in Canada?

The number of motor vehicle deaths resulting from crashes involving a drinking in Canada steadily declined from the mid-1990s to early 2000s. More recently progress has diminished and the number of fatalities has remained stable in recent years.

At the time of publication, coroner data from British Columbia were not yet available for all of the years that are examined. Thus, fatality data for Canada excludes British Columbia. The number of motor vehicle deaths involving a drinking driver due to road crashes rose from 688 in 2005 to 764 in 2006. However, between 2006 and 2014 the total number of deaths involving a drinking driver generally declined until 2014 (427).

To date, the most significant progress in reducing drinking driver-related deaths occurred during the late 1980s and through the 1990s. Since 2000 progress has been more difficult to achieve and the 2005 - 2010 data suggest that declines have been nominal.

a) What is the percentage of motor vehicle deaths involving a drinking driver on Canadian roadways?

Another way to understand the drinking driving problem is to look at the percentage of total deaths on the nation?s roadways that occurred due to the involvement of a drinking driver The percentage of drinking driver-related deaths in Canada generally rose from 28.6% in 2005 to 33.8% in 2010. In the past four years, the percentage of fatalities involving a drinking driver decreased to 26.8% in 2014.

The following table illustrates the number of motor vehicle deaths involving a drinking driver and the percentage of all road crash fatalities that involved a drinking driver:

Table 1: Canada

Year Number of deaths* Number of alcohol-related deaths % of total deaths that are alcohol-related
2005 2,403 688 28.6%
2006 2,346 764 32.6%
2007 2,250 714 31.7%
2008 1,989 669 33.6%
2009 1,841 597 32.4%
2010 1,840 621 33.8%
2011 1,793 553 30.8%
2012 1,884 566 30.0%
2013 1,718 481 28.0%
2014 1,592 427 26.8%

* Excluding British Columbia.

** Note that these numbers are estimates based on the percent of deaths for which information was available to determine alcohol use and that only deaths that occurred on public roadways using principal vehicle types were included.

*** (Brown, Vanlaar, and Robertson 2017).

b) How frequently do Canadians drink and drive?

When asked about driving after consuming any amount of alcohol in the past 30 days, an estimated 18.9% of Canadians admitted to driving after drinking in 2017. This represents a decrease from 2010 when 24.4% of Canadians admitted to drinking and driving.

When asked about driving when they thought they were over the legal limit in the last 12 months, 5.1% of Canadians admitted to doing this in 2017. From 2007 to 2015 there was a general decrease in the percentage of drivers who admitted to this behaviour. However, from 2015 to 2017 the percentage increased gradually from 4.2% in 2015 to 5.1% in 2017. The latest indicators will need to be monitored to see whether Canadians are now more or less likely to drive when they think they are over the legal limit.

*(TIRF 2008; TIRF 2009; TIRF 2010; TIRF 2011; TIRF 2012; TIRF 2013; TIRF 2014; TIRF 2015; TIRF 2016; TIRF 2017)

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2. How does the problem of motor vehicle deaths involving a drinking driver in Canada compare to the United States?

Similar to the reduction in the number of motor vehicle fatalities involving a drinking driver in Canada, the United States has seen comparable trends in recent years. The number of persons killed in crashes involving a drinking driver (i.e., the driver's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was equal to or greater than .01) in the U.S. has steadily decreased over the past 10 years. The number of fatalities in crashes involving a drinking driver decreased from 15,985 in 2005 to 11,731 in 2014.

With regard to the total number of motor vehicle deaths, the percentage of deaths involving a drinking driver have remained stable with slight increases and decreases. The percentages have consistently fallen between 35-38% over the past 10 years. It is important to note that while the U.S. has far more motor vehicle deaths involving drinking drivers than Canada (due to differences in population size), the percentages are still comparable. In each country, deaths involving at least one drinking driver account for approximately one-third of the total deaths on roadways.

The following table illustrates the magnitude of the drinking and driving problem in the U.S.:

Table 2: United States

Year Number of deaths Number of alcohol-related deaths % of total deaths that are alcohol-related
2005 43,510 15,985 36.7%
2006 42,708 15,970 37.4%
2007 41,259 15,534 37.6%
2008 37,423 13,826 36.9%
2009 33,883 12,731 37.6%
2010 32,999 11,906 36.1%
2011 32,479 11,527 35.5%
2012 33,782 12,118 35.9%
2013 32,894 11,941 36.3%
2014 32,675 11,731 35.9%

*The table depicts the estimated number of deaths, estimated number of drinking and driving-related deaths, and the percent of drinking and driving-related deaths from 2005 to 2014 based on FARS data.

**Note: Total number of deaths from motor vehicle crashes includes fatalities in crashes in which there was no driver or motor cycle rider present.

*** (NHTSA 2016).

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3. How many people are killed and how many drivers are involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes annually in each Canadian province/territory?

The following tables provide an overview of the number of people killed and the number of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes in each of Canada?s provinces and territories over a five year period from 2010-2014. Of interest, the number for serious injury crashes excludes operators of bicycles, snowmobiles, farm tractors, and other non-highway vehicles.

Table 3: British Columbia

Year Number of deaths Number of alcohol-related deaths % of total deaths that are alcohol-related Number of drivers in serious injury crashes Number of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes % of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes
2010 N/A N/A N/A 2,072 494 23.8%
2011 N/A N/A N/A 1,837 363 19.8%
2012 N/A N/A N/A 2,033 415 20.4%
2013 N/A N/A N/A 1,878 369 19.6%
2014 N/A N/A N/A 1,941 380 19.6%

Table 4: Alberta

Year Number of deaths Number of alcohol-related deaths % of total deaths that are alcohol-related Number of drivers in serious injury crashes Number of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes % of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes
2010 340 139 40.9% 3,564 641 18.0%
2011 305 108 35.4% 3,024 504 16.7%
2012 333 123 36.9% 3,129 492 15.7%
2013 347 129 37.2% 3,607 515 14.3%
2014 351 114 32.5% 3,603 601 16.7%

Table 5: Saskatchewan

Year Number of deaths Number of alcohol-related deaths % of total deaths that are alcohol-related Number of drivers in serious injury crashes Number of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes % of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes
2010 155 68 43.9% 492 142 28.9%
2011 146 62 42.5% 460 128 27.8%
2012 172 62 36.0% 451 129 28.6%
2013 137 54 39.4% 507 144 28.4%
2014 117 50 42.7% 381 87 22.8%

Table 6: Manitoba

Year Number of deaths Number of alcohol-related deaths % of total deaths that are alcohol-related Number of drivers in serious injury crashes Number of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes % of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes
2010 87 36 41.4% 341 63 18.5%
2011 113 43 38.1% 403 63 15.6%
2012 100 40 40.0% 438 47 10.7%
2013 90 24 26.7% 398 52 13.1%
2014 68 19 27.9% 398 47 11.8%

Table 7: Ontario

Year Number of deaths Number of alcohol-related deaths % of total deaths that are alcohol-related Number of drivers in serious injury crashes Number of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes % of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes
2010 627 181 28.9% 3,292 477 14.5%
2011 560 138 24.6% 3,238 497 15.3%
2012 652 169 25.9% 3,255 488 15.0%
2013 568 133 23.4% 3,135 425 13.6%
2014 582 132 22.7% 2,975 396 13.3%

Table 8: Quebec

Year Number of deaths Number of alcohol-related deaths % of total deaths that are alcohol-related Number of drivers in serious injury crashes Number of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes % of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes
2010 419 119 28.4% 2,895 531 18.3%
2011 467 133 28.5% 2,542 443 17.4%
2012 434 107 24.7% 2,490 446 17.9%
2013 392 88 22.4% 2,218 345 15.6%
2014 324 74 22.8% 2,074 298 14.4%

Table 9: New Brunswick

Year Number of deaths Number of alcohol-related deaths % of total deaths that are alcohol-related Number of drivers in serious injury crashes Number of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes % of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes
2010 97 40 41.2% 309 85 27.5%
2011 66 23 34.8% 277 76 27.4%
2012 64 23 35.9% 230 57 24.8%
2013 55 17 30.9% N/A N/A N/A
2014 52 8 15.4% 222 53 23.9%

Table 10: Nova Scotia

Year Number of deaths Number of alcohol-related deaths % of total deaths that are alcohol-related Number of drivers in serious injury crashes Number of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes % of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes
2010 67 18 26.9% 299 77 25.8%
2011 68 19 27.9% 345 59 17.1%
2012 81 23 28.4% 345 64 18.6%
2013 72 17 23.6% 285 45 15.8%
2014 52 14 26.9% 308 51 16.6%

Table 11: Prince Edward Island

Year Number of deaths Number of alcohol-related deaths % of total deaths that are alcohol-related Number of drivers in serious injury crashes Number of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes % of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes
2010 9 1 11.1% 66 13 19.7%
2011 18 10 55.6% 62 15 24.2%
2012 12 8 66.7% 62 16 25.8%
2013 14 4 28.6% 53 13 24.5%
2014 5 1 20.0% 48 12 25.0%

Table 12: Newfoundland and Labrador

Year Number of deaths Number of alcohol-related deaths % of total deaths that are alcohol-related Number of drivers in serious injury crashes Number of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes % of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes
2010 32 9 28.1% N/A N/A N/A
2011 43 17 39.5% N/A N/A N/A
2012 31 8 25.8% 156 29 18.6%
2013 36 14 38.9% 151 27 17.9%
2014 33 10 30.3% 149 11 7.4%

Table 13: Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut

Year Number of deaths Number of alcohol-related deaths % of total deaths that are alcohol-related Number of drivers in serious injury crashes Number of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes % of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes
2010 7 4 57.1% 38 14 36.8%
2011 7 3 42.9% 29 9 31.0%
2012 5 2 40.0% 28 3 10.7%
2013 7 1 14.3% 41 12 29.3%
2014 8 3 37.5% 34 7 20.6%

*Tables 3 - 13 depict the number of motor vehicle deaths and serious injuries involving a drinking driver between the years 2010 - 2014, by province.

** (Brown, Vanlaar, and Robertson 2017)

These numbers suggest that drinking and driving continues to be a significant problem in most Canadian jurisdictions. Almost every province and territory experienced an increase in the number of alcohol-related deaths from 2006 to 2007. Furthermore, five provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Nova Scotia) have experienced increases from 2005 to 2007.

Cautionary note: It is important to understand that because the number of alcohol-related deaths and the number of drivers involved in serious injury alcohol-related crashes are small in many of the less populated provinces and territories that fluctuations in the numbers (increases and decreases) do not necessarily reflect true trends. Thus, data for the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut were grouped into Table 13. For example, a decrease from 8 to 4 deaths does not necessarily constitute a lasting decline of 50%; the following year could return to 8 or even more deaths.

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4. What types of vehicles are involved in drinking driver crashes in Canada?

In Canada in 2014, of all the fatally injured drinking drivers (i.e., drivers with a positive BAC), almost one-half (48.8%) were in an automobile; 27.2% were light truck drivers (e.g., pick-up trucks); 12.6% were motorcycle drivers; and 9.8% were van drivers.

It is interesting to note that in 2014, the highest incidence of drinking was found among light truck drivers. In fact, over one-third (36.0%) of light truck drivers in fatal crashes had been drinking, and 94.0% of them had an illegal BAC, compared to tractor-trailer drivers among whom only 8.3% had been drinking.

Pedestrians are also at an increased risk of being hit by a vehicle if they have consumed alcohol. To illustrate this, during 2014 there were 230 pedestrians fatally injured and 164 of them were tested for the presence of alcohol. Among those tested, 31.1% had been drinking.

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5. What are the implications for passengers of drinking drivers?

When an alcohol-related crash occurs, often it is not only the drinking driver who is injured or killed ? the passengers in the vehicle also suffer the same fate. Many studies have determined that human performance skills, including driving, begin to decline at BACs above zero (Borkenstein et al. 1964; Blomberg et al. 2009; Peck et al. 2008). The consumption of alcohol decreases an individual?s ability to properly operate a motor vehicle and the greater the level of impairment from alcohol the greater the risk of crash. This is called relative risk ? essentially, as a driver?s BAC increases the risk of crashing also increases.

A study conducted in Long Beach, California and Fort Lauderdale, Florida revealed that a notable relationship between risk and BAC begins at .04-.05 and increases exponentially once BACs reach .10 or greater (Blomberg et al. 2009). This means that even driving with an amount of alcohol below the legal limit in one?s system greatly increases the risk of crash. By getting into a vehicle with a driver who has been drinking, a passenger is putting themselves at risk for serious injury or death.

It is also possible that passengers are impaired which can affect their ability to make good decisions and exercise sound judgment. They may not have the wherewithal to see or ask if their driver is sober. This speaks to the importance of planning ahead and making arrangements if one knows that they will be drinking.

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6. How often are Canadians passengers in the vehicles of drinking drivers?

TIRF conducted a survey in Canada in 2011 that asked participants if they had been a passenger in a vehicle driven by someone who had been drinking in the last 30 days. The results are shown in the table below.

Table 14

Region % of individuals who had been a passenger on one occasion % of individuals who had been a passenger on at least two occasions
Atlantic Canada 2.5% 2.6%
Quebec 7.7% 7.9%
Ontario 8.5% 4.1%
Prairies 5.3% 4.1%
British Columbia 5.9% 9.4%
National 6.8% 6.7%

* (TIRF 2011)

These results reveal that a not insignificant number of people are knowingly getting into a vehicle with a driver who has been drinking and are unnecessarily putting themselves at risk of injury or death.

It is also important to note that of those surveyed, more people were likely to have gotten into a vehicle with a driver who had been drinking on at least two occasions within a 30 day period thus increasing their risk of being involved in an alcohol-related crash.

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7. Who drinks and drives and how often?

Drinking drivers are not a homogenous group - they come from all walks of life and differ in gender, socioeconomic status, education level, marital status, and employment. There are however, some characteristics that have been identified as being associated with drinking and driving.

According to data collected through self-report surveys, males are more likely to drink and drive than females. Drivers who believe the problem of drinking and driving is not very big were more likely to report driving after drinking. Also, those drivers who believe it is unlikely that they will be involved in a collision after drinking are at higher risk of drinking and driving. An increased number of traffic tickets (excluding parking tickets) within the past year were also associated with drinking and driving as was a decreased level of concern about road safety in general.

a) Is age a factor in drinking and driving?

Impaired drivers also fall into a range of age categories although the majority of impaired drivers are between 20 and 45 years old. In 2014, the distribution of age among all fatally injured legally impaired drivers revealed for example that 8.1% of all deaths involved 16-19 year olds. The percentages for all age categories are:

  • 16-19 years = 8.1%
  • 20-25 years = 20.1%
  • 26-35 years = 23.7%
  • 36-45 years = 19.8%
  • 46-55 years = 18.4%
  • 55+ years    = 10.0 %

A similar age distribution of drivers occurs when examining the percentage of all drivers involved in alcohol-related (i.e., there was at least one drinking driver or drinking pedestrian in the fatal crash) serious injury crashes:

  • < 16 years = 0.2%
  • 16-19 years = 9.7%
  • 20-25 years = 21.0%
  • 26-35 years = 24.0%
  • 36-45 years = 14.8%
  • 46-55 years = 15.1%
  • 55+ years     = 11.3%
  • Unknown   = 4.0%

b) Is gender a factor in impaired driving?

Males accounted for 90.2% of all fatally injured drivers who were over the legal limit in 2014. However, males dominate the picture largely because they account for 79.6% of all drivers killed (784 of the 985 fatalities in 2014). This is because males drive more than females and because males are more prone to taking risks when driving.

Of all the drivers involved in alcohol-related serious injury crashes, 75.0% were males. Males are also more likely to be involved in alcohol-related serious injury crashes than females (17.7% vs. 12.1%). However, in recent years there has been a slight increase in the U.S. of the number of females arrested for impaired driving (McKay 2010).

*(Brown, Vanlaar and Robertson 2017)

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8. What types of drivers are at heightened risk of crashing when driving after drinking?

Everyone who drives after drinking increases their risk of crashing. This is because alcohol impairs motor coordination and inhibits the ability of the driver to divide their attention across the multiple tasks involved in driving a motor vehicle. Laboratory studies have revealed that impairment begins as low as a 0.02% blood alcohol concentration (BACs). Epidemiological studies, however, show that the risk of crashing is relatively low at low BACs but increases dramatically once BACs reach .10% or greater.

Some segments of the population are at greater risk of crashing when driving after drinking even small amounts of alcohol (because they are more vulnerable) and these groups are discussed in more detail below.

Young drinking drivers

A majority of youth do not drive after drinking. More than 90% of alcohol-related deaths involve individuals over the age of 20. Of all age groups, youth account for only a small percentage of the impaired driving problem. However, youth are considered a high risk group because when they do drink and drive, they are much more likely to crash.

Young drivers are at very high risk of crashing after they have consumed even small amounts of alcohol. Their high-risk status can be attributed to two key factors:

  • inexperience driving; and
  • inexperience drinking

Even when sober, 16-19 year olds have a fatal crash rate more than four times as high as that of drivers aged 25-34, and nine times as high as drivers aged 45-54 (Mayhew et al. 2005). Second, as inexperienced drinkers they are more impaired at even low levels of alcohol. Of equal concern, they may also engage in binge drinking (frequently defined as occasions of heavy drinking measured by the consumption of at least 4-5 drinks in one sitting) or excessive consumption of alcohol.

Unfortunately, blood alcohol concentrations over the 0.08% (the legal limit for adults) are not uncommon among young drivers both in Canada and the U.S. For example, in 2014, 24.9% of all fatally injured legally impaired drivers were between the ages of 16-25 (Brown, Vanlaar and Robertson 2017). Comparable numbers exist in the U.S. as over 20% of all fatally injured legally impaired drivers were between the ages of 16-24 (NHTSA 2016).

a) Why is it more dangerous for youth to drink and drive?

As mentioned above, it is more dangerous for youth to drink and drive for several reasons. First, young drivers have less driving experience and therefore, a lower skill level. Young drivers, particularly those that are 16 and 17 year olds have been a significant road safety concern in both Canada and the U.S. for decades. Research has consistently shown that these drivers have crash rates that are far higher than those of older and more experienced drivers (Mayhew and Simpson 1999; Mayhew et al. 2004).

In fact, drivers under the age of 20 with a zero BAC have a crash risk equivalent to older drivers with a blood alcohol concentration between 0.05% and 0.08% (Mayhew et al. 1986; Blomberg et al. 2005). These elevated crash rates do not only pertain to property damage collisions but also serious injury and fatal collisions. It is also worth noting that this problem not only affects teen drivers but teen passengers and other road users as well because many of them are victims in crashes caused by teen drivers (AAAFTS 2006).

Second, youth also have less experience consuming alcohol and are frequently unfamiliar with the impact it can have on motor coordination and divided attention tasks such as those relevant to driving. It is not uncommon for youth to engage in unsafe drinking practices such as binge drinking (typically defined as occasions of heavy drinking measured by the consumption of at least 4-5 drinks in one sitting; Lange and Voas 2001). While youth consume alcohol less frequently than adults, they tend to drink more in a single sitting - the rates of heavy monthly drinking among youth is almost double that of adults. Of the 82.1% of grade 12 provincial students who consumed alcohol during the one year period from 2007-2008 in Canada, 48% reported consuming five or more drinks on one occasion in the past month (Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse 2011).

Those with a tendency to binge drink and/or drink heavily also tend to be risk takers. This behaviour is often considered an age-related factor in crashes as youthful exuberance, risk-taking, and thrill-seeking are all attributes that make this population more susceptible to the impairing effects of alcohol (Mayhew et al. 2006; Peck et al. 2008).

According to the 2004 Canadian Addiction Survey, the majority of Canadian youth aged 15 and older have consumed alcohol, both in the past year (82.9%) and in their lifetime (90.8%). The average age that these youth are initiated into drinking is 15.6 years. Similar numbers exist in the U.S. as the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that about 10.1 million Americans between ages 12-20 report current alcohol consumption; this represents nearly 26% of this age group for whom alcohol consumption is illegal (SAMHSA 2008). The good news is that the other 74% are not consuming alcohol.

Statistics such as these are concerning because the earlier the age of onset of alcohol consumption, the greater the likelihood that alcohol usage may develop into an addiction. The earlier youth start drinking, the more likely they are to drink heavily on a frequent basis and they are also more likely to report alcohol-related harm (National Alcohol Strategy Working Group 2007). The use of substances, such as alcohol, at a young age is also identified as a precursor to involvement in illegal activity such as impaired driving (Alexander 2000).

Although youth may refrain from drinking and driving, it remains a source of continued concern and an important social issue. For the reasons outlined, youth should be targeted as they have the greatest potential for change, and of greater concern, the greatest potential to become the repeat or hardcore offenders of tomorrow.

b) How many youth face criminal sanctions for impaired driving in Canada and the United States?

The magnitude of the problem is also clearly illustrated by the number of impaired driving charges and court cases among youth on both sides of the border. In Canada in 2008, there were 1,138 youth under the age of 18 charged with impaired driving (Taylor-Butts 2008). Data from 2011 also shows that the rate of persons charged with impaired driving was highest among those aged 20-24 (over 600 charged per 100,000 population) Those in the youngest age group, aged 16 to 19 years old, had rates of impaired driving accusations 40% lower than those drivers aged 20-24 (Perreault 2013).

In the United States, Uniform Crime Reports for 2012 from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reveal that a total of 7,236 charges were laid against youth under age 18 for impaired driving and a total of 255,549 youth under 25 were charged with impaired driving in 2012 (FBI 2013). As is the case in Canada, youth aged 21 were most frequently charged.

c) What types of penalties are imposed on youth who drive while impaired?

Common penalties that are imposed with this population include fines, probation supervision, and, in some cases, treatment. To date, not much is known about effective strategies to manage young drunk drivers. The bottom line is that young impaired drivers demand attention for two reasons - not only are they at risk of becoming the high risk repeat drunk drivers of tomorrow, but they are also more amenable to behaviour change.

Female drunk drivers

Female impaired drivers are one type of offender that is a growing concern. Historically, the impaired driving problem has always been attributed to men but in recent years the number of females convicted of impaired driving has increased. In 2006, 24.6% of fatally injured female drivers tested positive for alcohol use. This number increased to 28.4% in 2007. During the same period, the percentage of fatally injured male drivers who tested positive for alcohol use decreased slightly from 41.0% to 40.5%. With regard to sex distribution among the total number of fatally injured drivers in Canada in 2006, 72 out of 440 (16.4%) were female. This percentage dropped to 15.0% in 2007 (65 out of 432).

American studies have found that although men still account for nearly 80% of the arrests for impaired driving, there was a 28.8% increase in the number of impaired driving arrests among women in the decade between 1997 and 2007 (McKay 2010). The 2008 report on Crime in the United States revealed an even greater difference in 1999: a 35% increase in impaired driving arrests of women. By contrast, in the same period, total impaired driving arrests involving men actually decreased by 6.6%.

These trends are worrisome, especially given the fact that if both genders consume the same amount of alcohol, women's blood alcohol concentration will be higher due to physiological differences between genders.

Also of some concern, most drunk driving countermeasures have been developed to target male offenders. Some research suggests that women have better outcomes with gender sensitive interventions, particular with regard to treatment (White and Hennessey 2007). For this reason, there is a need to review the extent to which these programs are appropriate for females and to develop measures specifically for women.

Legal drinking drivers

The majority of people who drive after drinking do so rarely and when they do, they usually have low blood alcohol concentrations. As one indication of this, roadside surveys in Canada show that about 80% of drinking drivers have a blood alcohol concentration under the legal limit. For drivers with low BACs, the risk of being involved in a serious crash is relatively low, compared to the average non-drinking driver. Such risk also varies as a function of age and gender (Zador et al. 2000) but a blood alcohol concentration 0.03% are associated with about a two- to three-fold increase in risk and BACs of .05 have between a 6 and 17 times increase in risk. So while those drivers with blood alcohol concentration below the legal limit have a lower crash risk relative to those drivers with a blood alcohol concentration over the legal limit of 0.08%; they still have a higher crash risk relative to those drivers who do not consume alcohol.

This group, although less at risk of causing a serious crash than drivers with high-BACs, comprises a large group of drinking drivers, so collectively they need to be deterred. Fortunately, there is evidence that such individuals are more amenable to traditional interventions such as conducting high visibility enforcement, which creates general deterrence and increases the perceived risk of arrest.

First offenders

First offenders account for a large portion of the impaired driving problem. Once a drunk driver is arrested, research shows that about two-thirds of them will be deterred by their experience with the criminal justice system and will not be apprehended again (Voas and Fisher 2001). However, approximately one-third will re-offend. Some of these first offenders are likely to have an alcohol dependency issue which increases the likelihood that they will recidivate (Rauch 2005). As a result, there is a need to consider screening and/or assessment even for first offenders, especially those with a high-BAC in order to identify those who are at an elevated level of risk.

Repeat offenders or hardcore drunk drivers

An estimated 30% of impaired driving offenders are repeat offenders. These offenders are more likely to:

  • drink and drive frequently;
  • often at high-BACs;
  • have a history of prior convictions; and,
  • may have alcohol dependency issues.

They are also relatively resistant to changing their behaviour as evidenced by their continued offending even after they have faced penalties and other negative consequences. Even though these offenders represent a relatively small portion of the driving population (an estimated 1% of night time drivers on the road), they account for nearly two-thirds (65%) of all alcohol-related driver fatalities and are responsible for making 84% of all drinking and driving trips. In other words, they drink and drive more frequently than any other type of impaired driver.

a) Why do repeat offenders present a greater risk on the road?

These offenders also tend to drink excessively which puts them at very high risk of causing a serious crash. To illustrate, research shows that drivers with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.15% are about 150 times more likely to have a fatal crash than the average non-drinking driver. At a BAC of 0.20% or higher this risk increases to some 460 times (Simpson et al. 1996). Although such drivers account for only a small proportion of all night-time drivers on the road (less than 1%) their high risk makes them a significant threat (Simpson and Mayhew 1991).

b) Do repeat offenders share common characteristics?

While impaired drivers as a whole are often very different and come from all walks of life, repeat or hardcore offenders tend to share several common characteristics:

  • male;
  • aged 25-45;
  • have a high school education or less;
  • lower socioeconomic status;
  • tend to be single, divorced, or separated;
  • aggressive and hostile;
  • sensation seeking;
  • have driving problems; and,
  • have alcohol dependency and abuse issues.

A particularly challenging group of offenders, these highest risk offenders need a strategy that is anchored in a combination of punishment, surveillance, and treatment. Strategies to reinforce positive behaviour should also be implemented to encourage behaviour change.

c) How much do hardcore drunk drivers contribute to the problem?

Although hardcore drinking drivers are a relatively small group in the total driving population, they continue to account for a very large portion of the impaired driving problem, including fatal and serious injury crashes. They account for almost one-third (27%) of all fatally injured drivers and about two-thirds (65%) of all fatally injured drivers who are drinking (Simpson et al. 1996). To illustrate the impact that this subgroup of offenders has, consider the following:

  • hardcore drinking drivers account for only 1% of all drivers on the road at night during the weekend, but they represent nearly half of all fatal crashes that occur during that time;
  • among fatally injured drivers who were legally impaired, 79% had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.15% or above;
  • over 60% of seriously injured drivers have a blood alcohol concentration in excess of 0.15%;
  • the hardcore impaired driver is estimated nationally to account for 15-20% of all drivers injured in all road crashes;
  • drivers with high BACs are over 200 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than the average non-drinking driver and those with a blood alcohol concentration in excess of 0.20% are 460 times more likely to be involved in a crash; and,
  • about 84% of all drinking and driving trips are accounted for by only 10% of all drivers who by their frequent driving after drinking behaviour are considered to be hardcore.

d) What strategies are available to deal with hardcore offenders?

Given that the hardcore offender poses such a significant risk on the roadways, attention should be focused on how to prevent them from getting behind the wheel after consuming alcohol. Some strategies for dealing with the hardcore offender are as follows:

  • develop a progressive sentencing system that would apply more severe penalties to repeat offenders as well as to first offenders with high BACs;
  • require mandatory clinical assessment for all repeat offenders and first offenders with high BACs to determine whether or not there are alcohol dependency issues present;
  • require treatment for offenders found to have moderate to serious alcohol dependency issues and pose a high-risk of recidivating;
  • impose a substantial licence suspension period in conjunction with the use of an alcohol ignition interlock to obtain a limited driver's licence;
  • ensure the seizure and impoundment of vehicles at roadside for all offenders found to be driving while suspended; and,
  • impose a mandatory interlock sanction for all repeat offenders.

The hardcore offender represents a constant and serious threat to the safety of everyone on the road. As a result, it is important to identify these individuals and not only separate their drinking from driving but to also target the underlying causes of their criminal behaviour by prioritizing them for referrals to treatment services that are tailored to their individual needs (Williams et al. 2000).

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9. What is the difference between first and repeat offenders?

There has been considerable debate about whether or not there truly is a first-time impaired driving offender. Research demonstrates that many drunk driving offenders can drink and drive more than 200 times before being detected and apprehended (Beck et al. 1999). Therefore, the term first offender often refers to the first time the driver has been caught, as opposed to the first time they have driven while impaired. The reality is that many first offenders are in fact repeat offenders who have managed to avoid detection and arrest.

First offenders have also been found to make up a large portion of the impaired driving problem as they account for a majority of drunk driving offences in many jurisdictions. Research has shown that about two-thirds of these offenders will be deterred by their experience with the criminal justice system and will not be apprehended again (Voas and Fisher 2001). In other words, these individuals recognize that they made a mistake and will not repeat it in the future. For these people, the administrative and criminal penalties that they faced combined with the embarrassment of being arrested for impaired driving serves as a learning experience.

Repeat offenders are more difficult to deter using traditional administrative or criminal penalties as demonstrated by their continual offending even when faced with the threat of additional punishment. These individuals do not learn from their negative experiences and continue to drink and drive, often with a suspended or revoked licence. As a result, this group of offenders is more challenging to deal with because consequences seemingly have no effect on their behaviour.

One potential explanation for the continued drunk driving of repeat offenders is alcohol dependency. These offenders typically suffer from some degree of alcohol abuse or addiction which explains their reduced capacity to control their behaviour and reluctance to change. While research has found that many first offenders also suffer from alcohol addiction (Rauch 2005), the occurrence of dependency is much higher among repeat offenders. In an effort to address this problem, it is suggested that all offenders arrested for impaired driving undergo screening for alcohol abuse to determine if assessment and possibly treatment are needed. To reduce the likelihood of ANY impaired driving offender recidivating, proper steps such as these should be taken to address any underlying issues that may be causing the illegal behaviour.

The distinction between first and repeat offenders is further complicated when taking BAC level into account. High-BACs (.15 or above) are one of the identifying characteristics of the hardcore/repeat impaired driving offender. However, many first offenders also frequently drive with high-BACs that are more than twice the legal limit and, therefore, have a significant risk of crashing (Rauch 2005). This risk does not however, match that of repeat offenders who are responsible for a larger proportion of alcohol-related deaths and injuries (Borkenstein et al. 1964; Simpson et al. 2004; Blomberg et al. 2009).

As one can see, impaired driving offenders do not necessarily fall into clearly defined categories. The debate will continue with regard to which offender population should remain the primary area of focus - first offenders who account for a greater portion of the impaired driving problem or repeat offenders who are at heightened risk of crashing.

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10. What are the latest data available about drinking and driving in Canada?

Impaired driving can be measured using a variety of indicators from different data sources, including fatal crash data, police charge data, and self-reported survey data. Each of these indicators provides an important window on the problem. An examination of trends associated with each of these indicators suggests that impaired driving has generally declined in Canada for more than a decade. Trend analysis (excluding BC) reveals a 40% decline in the number of alcohol-related fatalities between 2000 and 2014, and a 34% reduction in the total number of all road fatalities. This trend is evident after controlling for the general downward trend that has occurred across all types of road crashes during this period.

The average blood alcohol concentration (BAC) among fatally injured drinking drivers who were tested for alcohol has consistently been .17 over the past decade. Similar to other indicators, the percent of fatally injured drivers with BACs over the legal limit of .08 also generally decreased from 28.4% in 2000 to 24.2% in 2013. Most recently, an analysis of 2014 data regarding the average BAC of drivers killed in fatal crashes showed that 28.5% of drivers who were tested were drinking (as compared to 34.8% in 2000). Among these drivers who tested positive, more than four-fifths (83.2%) of them had a BAC over .08 (84.3% in BC) whereas 16.7% had a BAC between .01 and .08. These data demonstrate that the majority of drinking drivers in fatal crashes had a BAC well in excess of the current limit of .08. Access the full 2018 report.

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Last updated July 2018

 

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