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Myths & Misconceptions about Impaired Driving

Over the years, a number of widespread myths and misconceptions have developed about impaired driving. The ongoing belief in these misconceptions is problematic because it becomes challenging for the public to understand the importance of having a variety of programs, policies, and sanctions available to manage the different types of impaired driving offenders.  

Information about to address some of the more common myths and misconceptions about impaired driving is provided below.

1. All drunk drivers are the same.

Drunk drivers do share some common characteristics including the tendency to drink and drive. But this does not mean that these offenders are all the same. The reality is that some people drive drunk infrequently, others do it often; some are at a relatively low risk of causing a collision, others are at a very high risk. Impaired drivers are one of the most heterogeneous offender populations in the justice system and they come from all walks of life.

The majority of impaired drivers are men, however, the number of female impaired drivers is rising and has become a growing concern. Impaired drivers also represent different ages, levels of education, and professional achievement. The socio-economic status and criminal activity of these offenders also varies greatly. The truth is that the problem has many different parts to it and includes many distinct segments of the population. So it is essential to have a broad range of strategies or countermeasures available to create a comprehensive approach to address the problem.

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2. “One-size-fits-all” is an effective strategy.

There is no single solution to the impaired driving problem that will address the many types of offenders in need of intervention. Impaired drivers are a heterogeneous group with different levels of risk and need. Some offenders are low risk and may only require a fine and/or driver’s licence suspension. Other offenders may pose a much higher risk and will need probation supervision, alcohol treatment and an alcohol ignition interlock device. This means that a variety of programs and policies are needed to effectively address the many different types of offenders.

A comprehensive approach involving a range of solutions (e.g., sanctions or interventions) is essential to reduce the relapse into criminal behaviour and achieve long-term risk reduction. Of paramount importance, agencies need to emphasize that low level interventions (e.g., education programs, licence suspensions, fines) are more appropriate for low-risk offenders. Sanctions for high-risk offenders should balance punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation. It is also important to note that research shows that putting low-risk offenders in programs for high risk offenders can do more harm than good and result in poorer outcomes.

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3. Drunk drivers will not change their behaviour.

There is an assumption that many drunk drivers are addicts who are incapable of change and that they will continually succumb to their disease. This myth can further be reinforced by observing the uneven and sometimes frustrating progress of treating impaired driving offenders. Progress in learning to control the drinking behavior can be eroded by setbacks in which the offender returns to the drinking behaviour. Research shows that relapse is to be expected when dealing with alcohol dependency issues but so long as the offender remains in treatment and the addiction continues to be addressed, progress is usually made.

In order for treatment to be effective, programs must be tailored to the needs of individual offenders – this is called treatment matching. By matching an offender with the most appropriate interventions (that take into account factors such as gender, cultural background, drinking history) the chance for a successful outcome is increased. It is equally important to ensure that the programs selected for offenders are matched to their stage of change. There are five stages of change that involve pre-contemplation contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance. There is also research to show that programs that match an offender’s stage of change produce better outcomes.

Ultimately, the goal is to identify an offender’s individual needs and match them with the most appropriate interventions, as this case-by-case approach offers the greatest potential for successful outcomes – i.e., reductions in the drinking driving behavior in the long-term.

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4. Treatment is “soft on crime”.

It is a commonly held belief that treatment is a “weak” alternative to punishment and that offenders are “getting off easy” by being ordered to attend treatment as opposed to receiving jail time. However, if treatment were easy, offenders would be lining up to participate. The reality is that many offenders would rather spend time in jail than enroll in treatment because treatment requires continued and ongoing effort and a willingness to confront personal issues. Treatment is an effective tool to address one of the root causes of the offending behaviour (i.e., alcohol abuse or alcohol dependency) and the source of the drinking problem. It can also provide offenders with alternative strategies to address the problem.  

More importantly, research shows that treatment is a cost-effective solution. It costs less than incarceration and provides a return of $7 for every dollar invested (National Opinion Research Center 1994). Research also shows that interventions that combine a balance between punishment, surveillance, and rehabilitation have the best outcomes (Dill and Wells-Parker 2006). A focus on punishment alone is likely to have little effect on underlying issues such as alcohol dependency which is why a more comprehensive approach is needed.

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5. Increasing penalties increases deterrence.

It is a common misconception that getting “tough on crime” increases the deterrent effect of penalties or sanctions among high-risk offenders. This may hold true for law-abiding citizens, but as a long-term solution for persistent offenders, this strategy is limited. The justice system is based on the belief that offenders are rational – i.e., that offenders think like law-abiding citizens and will be deterred by harsh penalties. The choice to drive after consuming alcohol is often thought to be a rational one and as a result, there is a belief that offenders should be punished for these irresponsible decisions. In some cases, offenders are aware that their behaviour is unacceptable but they also suffer from addiction and/or may possess anti-social beliefs. As a consequence, they may try to justify or excuse their actions because they are unable to control their drinking or believe that they are unlikely to get caught or that they are above the law.

Offenders do need to be held accountable for their actions but the role that alcohol addiction may play in the behaviour should also be considered. Offenders who suffer from addiction are often unable to plan ahead and are unlikely to weigh the potential costs and benefits of their actions. As a result, punishment alone is unlikely to deter them in the future.

Moreover, since offenders are frequently sentenced and sanctions are imposed months after the crime has been committed  it becomes less likely that the offender will associate the punishment with the behaviour. Of even greater concern, excessively harsh penalties induce offenders to “opt-out” of the licensing system altogether (i.e., their driver’s licence remains suspended or revoked and they continue to drive anyway) so that they cannot be tracked. The bottom line is that punishment is not a complete solution. It often fails to address the source of the problem – i.e., alcohol dependency.

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6. Lots of people drink and drive.

A common misconception about the impaired driving problem is that drinking and driving is a regular occurrence – i.e., everyone does it. The reality however, is that only a small percentage of the population reports that they drive after drinking or when they thought they were over the legal limit. When asked about driving after consuming any amount of alcohol in the past 30 days, 19% of Canadians admitted to doing this in 2009 and just 5.6% of Canadians admitted to driving when they thought they were over the legal limit in the last 12 months. In gauging public knowledge about the extent of the impaired driving problem, arrive alive DRIVE SOBER found that most people could not correctly identify that 92.4% of drunk driving trips are made by only 4.4% of drivers (Vanlaar et al. 2006). They estimated the percentage of drivers to be much higher. Therefore, the problem is not as widespread as many may believe. The fact is that more people are making the choice to not drive after drinking.

For more information about this issue, please see the report from the DWI Working Group, Understanding Drunk Driving.

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7. Coercive or mandated (court-ordered) treatment is not effective.

Offenders may enter treatment on a voluntary basis or as mandated by law. However, even those offenders who freely choose to enter into treatment typically do so as a result of external pressures (e.g., from family, friends, and/or employers). In this regard, Wild et al. (1998) found that 37% of so-called self-referred clients felt coerced into attending treatment. For those offenders who are mandated, they may be referred to treatment by the courts, probation officials, other recognized legal entities (such as law enforcement or corrections), and/or diversionary programs. The successful completion of substance abuse treatment is typically a condition of probation or re-licensing for impaired driving offenders.  

There has been ongoing debate as to whether those patients who voluntarily enter treatment are likely to have better outcomes (e.g., long-term behaviour change, fewer relapses) than those offenders who are forced to participate. The rationale is that offenders who are forced to take part in treatment against their will are unlikely to derive anything from it and therefore, will not change their behaviour. These offenders may be unwilling to admit that they have a substance abuse problem or may resent the fact that they are required to attend treatment sessions which some argue make behaviour change more challenging.

This however, is not true. Evidence suggests that treatment can have a positive effect on a person’s substance use behaviour regardless of the circumstances of their entry into the program (Anglin 1988). Research also shows that coerced treatment can achieve significant reductions in substance use and related behaviours. Many published studies of prison-based treatment programs clearly show a positive outcome, including substance treatment programs delivered in Canadian federal prisons where offenders receive treatment in custody and then follow-up post-release as a condition of parole (Porporino et al. 2002; Lightfoot 1999). Findings from a long-term study co-funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and Veterans Affairs (VA) has affirmed the results of shorter-term studies that have shown similar therapeutic outcomes for voluntary and legally mandated patients (Whitten 2006). Therefore, the debate regarding voluntary versus mandated treatment protocols may be a moot point.

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8. More alcohol-related fatal crashes occur during the winter holiday season.

A review of Canadian crash data from 2003-2007, shows that more fatally injured drivers test positive for alcohol in April (40.5% of drivers tested), June (40.2% of drivers tested), and September (39.9% of drivers tested) than in December and January – 28.9% and 27.8% respectively.
When looking at the BAC of fatally injured drivers by season, a similar pattern emerges: 

  • Winter (Dec/Jan/Feb) – 30.5%
  • Spring (Mar/Apr/May)  – 38.1%
  • Summer (Jun/Jul/Aug) – 39.2%
  • Fall (Sep/Oct/Nov) – 38.3%

The truth is that crashes in the summer months have the highest incidence of fatally-injured drivers who test positive for alcohol. As well, further analysis shows that the percent of road fatalities that can be attributed to alcohol is actually much lower during the winter holiday season when compared to the rest of the year (29.4% vs. 37.2%).

One potential explanation for this reduction is the increased level of enforcement during the winter holiday season. Police are highly visible at this time of year and their efforts are also widely publicized in the media. For this reason, people may be less apt to drive after drinking because these drivers are more likely to be detected. There are also many transportation options offered during the holiday season – such as Operation Red Nose – that make it easier for people to find sober and safe ways home.

Consistent with an increased level of enforcement, arrests for impaired driving are also higher during the winter holiday season which results in more drivers being removed from the road. Media reporting on the frequency of arrests may lead the public to believe that impaired driving fatalities are more common at this time of year when in reality it is likely more of a reflection of the increased efforts by law enforcement.

9. Only Men Drink and Drive.

Although there has consistently been a lower rate of impaired driving among women as compared to men, impaired driving incidents among women have risen in past decades, making this issue a source of growing concern. In 2015, women account for 1 in 5 reported incidents of impaired driving whereas in 1986 they represented just 1 in 13. The limited Canadian research that is available reveals that self-reported driving after drinking among women has remained consistent but that women are more often charged with impaired driving as compared to previous years, and represent a larger proportion of drivers killed in road crashes that test positive for alcohol.

Women often report more individual-level factors that influence their involvement, or continuing involvement, in driving after drinking or being a passenger of a drinking driver. Common factors include biological factors, personal estimations, coping-mechanisms, safety and availability of public transportation, and lack of gender-specific educational campaigns.

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