Chad Olsen a changed man after deadly crash
This is the second article in a series of Advocate stories on drunk driving.
Chad Olsen lives three blocks from the site where he killed a Red Deer couple.
Every day he sees the intersection where he caused the deaths of Brad and Krista Howe, who were the parents of three children and guardians of two. Olsen chose to drive impaired early on Feb. 7, 2010 — a decision he will regret for the rest of his life.
“There isn’t a time that I go through (that intersection) and it doesn’t take me back to that moment and what happened that night,” said Olsen, now 25.
Olsen said he didn’t feel impaired that night, so he was shocked when he learned his blood alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit. He now believes there’s no safe limit for alcohol if one plans to drive.
In his first public interview, Olsen said he takes full responsibility for his actions. He is committed to telling his story to prevent others from drinking and driving. He’s not had a drink since the crash and has no desire to consume alcohol ever again. He is prohibited from driving until October 2016.
Olsen remembers feeling invincible in his youth, despite earning three driving suspensions from nine speeding and seven traffic-related convictions in five years. None of the earlier tickets were due to alcohol.
Olsen grew up in a stable family environment on a farm near Sedalia, about 175 km southeast of Stettler.
At 14, he had his first drink. His alcohol consumption increased when he went to college and then into the oilpatch. Two weeks before the fatal crash, Olsen was working in Saskatchewan. With a few days off work, he decided to return to his home in Sylvan Lake.
After the long trip in on Feb. 6, he stopped briefly at his parents’ house and then drove to Red Deer that night. He had two beer and two double rum drinks at a buddy’s house before going to a bar, where he had nothing more to drink. Then he took a cab back to his friend’s house, hoping to stay the night. The door was locked.
Feeling exhausted, he decided to go home to Sylvan Lake. Olsen said it was likely a couple of hours since he had consumed alcohol. He didn’t feel tipsy.
The Howes, both in their mid-30s, were heading home after playing board games with friends. At about 2 a.m., the streets would have been quiet.
“I wasn’t 100 per cent focused and I just kind of had tunnel vision, and I didn’t even notice the (traffic) lights were going because there used to be stop signs there,” said Olsen, regarding the intersection of 30th Avenue and Ironstone Drive.
Olsen drove through the traffic light at about 85 km/h, 25 km over the speed limit. From the corner of his eye, he saw the Howes’ car, but it was too late.
After the impact, the vehicles stopped close to each other. He could see that the driver’s side of the car was damaged and no one was moving inside. A stranger approached his truck and asked him if he was OK. He urged them to check on the people in the car.
Olsen was taken to hospital, where his chin was stitched up. A blood sample was taken.
“I kept asking what happened to the vehicle I hit and nobody would give me an answer. Finally when the officer arrested me, he said they had died — and that’s when I broke down.”
When he learned his blood sample results were .223, he was shocked.
“I knew there was alcohol in my system and I don’t know exactly what it takes for me to be at .08 or over — it’s not as if anyone knows,” said Olsen.
Parole Board of Canada documents say that Olsen spoke openly about how his addiction to alcohol and wanton disregard for driving laws led to the night of the fatal collision — and that he realizes he can never have a drink again.
Olsen’s parents took the news of his crime hard. His parents live in a close-knit community where they are surrounded by support.
Olsen’s key support has been Nikita Walker, whom he met in Kyle, Sask., only a couple of weeks before the fatal collision. Walker, 21, doesn’t drink and she describes herself as more of a homebody. She has stuck by him and the two are now engaged to be married. But her relationship hasn’t come without harsh criticism.
“People have said that I’m sleeping with a murderer and I’m going home to a murderer,” said Walker.
Olsen said it’s difficult to hear when strangers and others are judging people he loves.
“They have no idea what I’m like as a person,” he added.
Following the fatal crash, Walker wanted to help the man she barely knew. Olsen was released on bail and placed under house arrest. Walker moved to Alberta to be a support to him until he went to jail.
Olsen planned to plead guilty right away but the case kept being pushed back. He thought he would be in jail by summer 2010.
Olsen is now living in Red Deer after being granted full parole last August.
“What I did, I will have to live with for the rest of my life,” said Olsen. “No amount of jail time is going to matter.”
“With Chad being out of prison, he has more of an opportunity to use his experience in a positive light,” added Walker.
Olsen considers himself a recovering alcoholic. He said he’s a changed man. He’s a lot quieter than he used to be.
“I’m happier with smaller things,” said Olsen, who works in the oilpatch and comes home after every shift. “I don’t take things for granted and I try to focus on that.”
While he and Walker try to enjoy life by laughing with each other and going out with friends, the fatal crash isn’t far from his mind. He knows he can spend time with his family while the Howe children will not be with their parents.
Olsen said he feels sorry for the Howe family and the pain he’s put them through.
No matter where he lives, Olsen said the fatal crash will always be on his mind. He says he’d rather face it head on and deal with it than avoid or hide from it.
“I’m not a cowardly person. I’m not the kind of person who wants to try to forget about what I did.”
Earlier this year, the Howe family filed a $3.5-million lawsuit against Olsen. He declined comment on the lawsuit.
Olsen hopes to meet with Sandra Green, the mother of Krista Howe. She’s been a staunch advocate for stronger impaired driving laws. That’s where his heart lies, too.
Olsen is eager to talk about the perils of drinking and driving to 14-to-18-year-olds, as well as impaired drivers. Walker has contacted dozens of advocacy groups to see if they want to hear his story. Olsen’s main message to youth is that what happened that tragic night can happen to anyone.
“It doesn’t matter your background, you don’t have to be a criminal or an alcoholic or a drunk,” said Olsen. “You just have to make a selfish decision, a mistake that can happen at any given time. And it affects so many people beyond your imagination.”
Walker wants people to know that Olsen is a good person who did a wrong thing and now wants to do right. She feels his story will relate to youth because Olsen grew up in a good home, but made a selfish decision to drink and drive that night.
Killing someone on the road can happen to anyone who drinks and drives, she added.
“Chad is (like) the kid that you grew up with,” she said.
Alberta has joined Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in bringing in zero tolerance legislation for new drivers. Those with a graduated licence who are caught with a blood alcohol level over zero face stiff penalties. Olsen would like to see that legislation expanded to all drivers, so that the legal limit is zero instead of .08.
Olsen said if people realized there was zero tolerance for drinking, they wouldn’t drive home after even one drink. They’d be concerned about losing their driver’s licence and their job. As Olsen says, it’s more personal than thinking about jail sentences.
“I think people are too tolerant of their friends having a couple of drinks and being OK to drive home,” said Olsen.
Walker agreed that people shouldn’t drive home, even after one drink. She’d like to see cards with car crash scenes, similar to the graphic depictions used in anti-tobacco messages, placed in every liquor store bag.
“There are so many other options out there,” she added. “We don’t have any excuses . . . you just don’t let people walk out the door (if they’ve been drinking).”
Olsen has spoken with people who say they’ll have a beer to relax or they can “drink like a fish” and yet they don’t think alcohol will affect their driving. His story is testament that drinking and driving don’t mix.