About the Program
Understanding the Impaired Driving System

The justice system involved in the control of impaired driving encompasses enforcement, prosecution, adjudication by the courts and monitoring by probation and parole. It is a complex and often poorly understood system and not everyone clearly recognizes the goals of the system, the roles of the different professionals in the system, or how it functions as a whole system. 

At the same time, it is evident that the various components within the system often operate independently of each other and occasionally at cross-purposes. Better communication, coordination and cooperation are needed to help set consistent priorities both in terms of objectives and the programs and policies that are employed. In order for the justice system to be effective and efficient in dealing with impaired drivers, there are a number of fundamental principles that must be satisfied. These principles are described in more detail below. 



1) Strategies to reduce impaired driving require adequate staffing, training, tools, and resources.

Drunk driving is one of the most frequently committed crimes in Canada and the United States and is often only surpassed by drug and property crimes. By contrast, the implementation of some effective strategies to address the problem has often been an “unfunded mandate”. For example, alcohol interlock programs have been implemented in a majority of Canadian and U.S. jurisdictions, and most U.S jurisdictions also have special impaired driving courts (DWI courts). However, the necessary resources, training, and staffing required to support these programs at an operational level have not been consistently allocated. At the same time, the impact that these programs can have on initial workloads vs. long-term workloads may not be anticipated when they are being developed. Hence staffing, training, and resources to deliver programs and policies may not be sufficient to achieve goals and objectives during initial phases of the program. A clear mandate is needed to provide adequate numbers of frontline staff with appropriate tools and skill sets to support the implementation and delivery of effective strategies and ensure that laws are efficiently enforced.

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2) Getting drunk drivers off the road and keeping them off the road makes communities safer.

A key goal of the justice system is to prevent the repeated criminal behavior, including impaired driving. This can subsequently, saves lives. In order to achieve this, there must be recognition that both short-term and long-term goals are important. It is first and foremost critical to get impaired drivers off the road using consistent, effective enforcement strategies. This can be accomplished by training law enforcement officials to recognize the signs that drivers are impaired and providing them with appropriate tools and training to remove these drivers from the roads.

After an impaired driver enters the system however, the focus must shift to risk reduction in both the short and long-term, meaning the emphasis is on preventing re-offending. Effective and appropriate strategies are needed to identify the risk posed by individual offenders and penalties and programs must be imposed accordingly. To prevent repeat offences, a comprehensive strategy that includes education efforts, administrative licence suspension, screening/assessment for problems with alcohol, adequate monitoring and supervision, and possibly treatment combined with other penalties such as the use of an alcohol interlock device, continuous alcohol monitoring, vehicle impoundment or short periods of incarceration should be utilized. Extended incarceration should be reserved for the most serious, high-risk offenders. A balance between assessment, rehabilitation and supervision can ensure the strategic use of resources and encourage behavior change to prevent offenders from returning to the road as impaired drivers in the future.   

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3) Meaningful and appropriate supervision is needed to ensure offenders do not slip through the cracks.

Once impaired drivers have been convicted, it is important to have proper monitoring mechanisms in place that provide adequate levels of supervision according to the risk posed by the offender. A lack of follow-up to ensure penalties are served and conditions are followed (e.g., to ensure that offenders do not drive once their driver’s licence has been suspended or revoked) is essential to reduce impaired driving. Money invested in enforcement, prosecution, conviction, and sanctioning by the justice system is wasted if offenders are not supervised and are able to evade sanctions designed to protect the public and change behaviour. It has also been well established that repeat offenders in particular are familiar with loopholes in the system, and know how to exploit them and avoid completing the penalties that were imposed.  

For example, offenders may not comply with licence restrictions, treatment requirements, or participate in alcohol interlock programs as required due to gaps in information-sharing and a lack of coordination. Improved supervision and good communication among all involved parties – probation, the courts, law enforcement, treatment and licensing agencies – is necessary to streamline the process of monitoring impaired driving offenders. DWI courts are a good example of how practitioners from each area of the system can come together and work collaboratively in supervising offenders and holding them accountable. These principles are applicable to traditional courts as well.

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4) Assessment and treatment are efficient tools for targeting high-risk offenders with alcohol issues.

Assessment. An assessment is a process used to “confirm the presence and severity of alcohol dependency issues and identify the appropriate level of care needed to address them” (SAMHSA 2005). Through the use of assessment, offenders who are most likely to benefit from and/or need treatment can be identified and targeted. Given the limited resources that are available and the costs associated with treatment, offenders who do not need or will not benefit from treatment can be screened out. Through the use of these tools, practitioners can determine which offenders may need increased supervision as well as those who are more likely to recidivate. Identification and referral of these higher risk offenders in a timely fashion will maximize their potential for behavior change.

In addition, recovery management studies reveal that timely stage-appropriate interventions based on client characteristics (identified during assessments) can lead to improved outcomes. Of some interest, the neuroscience of addiction reveals cognitive impairment (i.e., the ability to inhibit behavior, plan ahead, anticipate consequences) that impedes high risk offenders’ ability to abstain without intervention, supervision, and treatment. Therefore, assessments that consider cognitive impairments are also important.

More awareness is also needed among decision-makers and judges in particular, about the long-term and cost-saving benefits of assessments. The importance of assessment prior to sentencing should be emphasized as this can provide the judge with an indication of the most appropriate conditions/sanctions to impose.

Treatment. Once offenders are identified as presenting a high risk for re-offence, referrals can be made for appropriate treatment interventions. Detoxification is the first step towards overcoming physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. After detoxification, other levels and intensity of care (determined through ongoing assessments) can be assigned. Many interventions have proven to be successful in treating DWI offenders including:

  • motivational interviewing;
  • cognitive behavioral therapy;
  • screening and assessments;
  • counseling/therapy (both individual and group); and,
  • pharmacological interventions (drug therapy).

Treatment can be delivered on an inpatient or outpatient basis. Those offenders who have severe dependency issues are more likely to be referred to inpatient programs either in hospitals or in non-hospital residential care. The majority of offenders however, are likely to benefit from outpatient services. These services can be intensive and rigidly structured for those who require it (9-20 hours per week which can include evenings or weekends) or on a more regular basis (a couple of hours per week) for those who do not have the same level of need. While inpatient treatment can be expensive due to the costs associated with 24-hour care and accommodations; outpatient services are a more affordable and easily accessible option.

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5) Intensive interventions for high-risk offenders can harm low-risk offenders.

An offender’s risk level can be defined as their probability of reoffending. Impaired driving offenders should be provided with supervision and treatment levels that are commensurate with identified risk levels; high-risk offenders should receive more intensive supervision and/or treatment as needed.

Intense interventions are more effective when delivered to higher-risk offenders; research has found that these initiatives can actually increase the failure rates among low-risk offenders (Lowenkamp and Latessa 2004). The placement of low-risk offenders in intensive interventions or programs exposes them to high-risk offenders who can be a potentially negative influence and manipulative.

Low-risk offenders are classified as being fairly pro-social (i.e., they tend to comply with social norms). Hence, when they are placed in restrictive, intensive, and highly structured programs they may begin to adopt more anti-social characteristics as they attempt to adapt to their environment and peers. This can result in interventions having the opposite effect of what was desired - increasing recidivism as opposed to reducing it.

For this reason, it is important to identify low-risk offenders (through the use of assessment tools) and exclude them from intensive interventions that are better suited for high-risk offenders.

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6) Positive reinforcement of good behavior is beneficial.

When dealing with offenders, it is important to not only hold them accountable for non-compliance but to also respond to and reinforce compliant or desired behavior. Research suggests this can be effective. The danger in focusing solely on punishment is that after time, sanctions tend to pile up. The more punitive controls placed upon an offender, the greater the likelihood that they will violate those conditions and be returned to the criminal justice system.

When too many sanctions and conditions are placed upon offenders they may feel as though they are being set up for failure. Instead of successfully completing their probation and/or programming they will continually incur violations and be recycled through the system for non-compliance (Lucken 1997). This can become frustrating for practitioners and offenders alike and is likely to result in offenders dropping out of programs before completing them. 

Accordingly, interventions should balance punitive and rehabilitative approaches, as appropriate, to create accountability as well as recognition of progress, along with strategies that ensure public safety. Positive reinforcement can be as simple as giving verbal praise or it could be a reduction in the level of supervision or relaxing of some conditions. It has been suggested that four positive reinforcements should be applied for every negative reinforcement action in order to achieve optimal behavior change (Crime and Justice Institute 2004). By recognizing offenders for the progress they achieve, they may be motivated to continue demonstrating compliance and not feel as though they are facing impossibly high or insurmountable expectations.

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7) Information-sharing among agencies in the system is critical.

To enable agencies to share essential information, policies that permit this must be in place. Agencies require good channels of communication to transfer knowledge and information, develop initiatives, and engage in dialogue about their common goals and objectives. Agencies that share information about both their successes and failures and provide feedback to one another can benefit from each other’s experiences by knowing what does and does not work without having to repeat mistakes. The sharing of information and increased communication also facilitates collaboration and allows partnerships to form.

There are many benefits associated with sharing information and working cooperatively as it ensures that a single agency does not have to absorb all costs. Collaboration also lends more weight to what is being produced through the unification of the experiences of multiple agencies. Agency administrators can view information-sharing practices as a way to lighten their load and improve upon what has already been done by learning from others in the system.

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8) Change takes time and gains are incremental.

Progress in reducing impaired driving may not be immediately evident. However, this does not mean that gains are not being achieved. The impact takes time to show as the effects of policies and programs developed four to five years ago are only beginning to be felt. Frustration should not occur if measurable change does not occur within a short timeframe. The focus should always remain on preventing and reducing impaired driving and keeping this long-term focus is necessary when seeking to implement new programs and policies. Any progress that is made, no matter how small, should be considered a victory as it moves agencies one step closer to reducing the magnitude of the problem.

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9) Revenue generation is not the purpose of impaired driving enforcement.  

Funding to support the consistent enforcement of impaired driving and other traffic laws may incorrectly be perceived as a strategy to generate revenue for jurisdictions or communities. However, the main goal of these enforcement strategies is to protect the public. Research shows that 863 people were killed in impaired driving crashes in 2007 in Canada (Mayhew, Brown and Simpson 2010). It further shows that limited enforcement of these laws means that offenders can drive drunk between 200 and 2,000 times before being apprehended (Jones and Joscelyn 1978). However, during periods of high enforcement, this drops to as low as 1 in 80. As such, strong enforcement is imperative to keep the public safe on the road.

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