Changing attitudes, saving lives

The war against drunk driving isn’t all about punishment.

The war against drunk driving isn’t all about punishment.

Hefty fines, licence suspensions and even jail sentences are well known consequences of taking the wheel with illegal amounts of alcohol in the blood.

But concerted efforts have also been made to try to stem the number of impaired driving repeat offenders in the court system by changing attitudes.

To that end, those convicted of drunk driving in Alberta must complete education programs of varying intensities depending on their history. When their driving prohibition ends, they will also have to pay to have a device installed in their vehicle that kills the engine if it detects alcohol in the breath of a driver who blows into it.

Last July 1, the province toughened the penalties for impaired driving, and part of that was making the interlock ignition program mandatory after a criminal conviction.

Drivers must have the device installed for at least a year after a first conviction, three years for a second conviction and five years for a third conviction.

Previously, it was six months, although that period could be extended.

It’s all about changing the behaviour that got people on the wrong side of the law in the first place, suggests Alberta Transportation spokeswoman Donnae Schuhltz.

“The program is designed to separate drinking and driving, to separate those two behaviours.”

All of those convicted of drunk driving for the first time in a 10-year period must take the one-day Planning Ahead course, which costs $220.

Offered only by the Alberta Motor Association, the eight-hour, in-class program tries to impress upon those who take it how quickly drugs and alcohol can begin to impair their ability to drive.

Be warned: It’s pretty much straight away.

“The whole notion of zero tolerance is central to Planning Ahead,” said AMA senior policy analyst Scott Wilson.

Those taking the course are also shown how to prepare for getting around if they know they’re going to be drinking.

It also drives home the point that a life centred around alcohol and drugs does not fit well with driving.

“It sets the stage if an individual continues on in their impaired driving career, so to speak, they are likely going to come back to us at some point and have to take Impact.”

That $750 course is much more intensive and must be taken by all repeat offenders. It is a full-weekend residential program that tries to get its participants to take a hard look at their drinking and how they got to where they are.

There are lectures and videos, but most of the weekend is dedicated to small group discussions led by an experienced alcohol counsellor.

“They look at how alcohol and/or drugs have affected their lives in a number of different areas.”

Those who go through the course receive an assessment and an action plan with recommendations to try to set them on a safer path.

About 15 to 25 per cent of those going through the course also face an appearance before Alberta Transportation’s Driver Fitness and Monitoring Branch.

“That board can say to that individual we want you to come back in six months and prove that you’re making progress towards getting your life on the right path.”

If the individual doesn’t show much in the way of changing their ways, it can be a long time before they get their licence back.

Wilson said the programs seem to be working. It’s believed only about a quarter of those who went through the Impact course reoffend, but a review is underway to come up with harder numbers.

“We’re trying to get a re-evaluation together to reassess that because that’s based on some old information.”

About 1,300 drivers go through Impact each year and between 4,000 and 4,300 drivers take Planning Ahead each year.

Work is also underway on a course for those who have been charged under the province’s Bill 26, which outlined penalties including driving suspensions for those driving with a blood alcohol level between 0.05 and 0.08.

Another tool the province has at its disposal to try to change drunk drivers’ attitudes is the ignition Interlock program, which is administered by the Alberta Transportation Safety Board.

Drivers who have lost their licences may gain conditional driving privileges before the end of their licence suspensions, which start at a minimum one year under Canadian law. The restricted licence only applies to an Interlock-equipped vehicle.

It is by no means an automatic privilege. Drivers must meet certain criteria. Typically, it is only available to those with no prior drunk driving history and who can demonstrate they need their vehicle for work. They can’t have been convicted of impaired driving causing injury or death.

While Interlock is now mandatory for those convicted of their first drunk driving offence, those who registered a blood alcohol level under 0.08 can apply for exemption that may or may not be granted depending on individual circumstances.

Interlock is required for all drivers with more than one alcohol-related conviction in the past 10 years and for first offenders with a blood alcohol reading over 0.16, double the legal limit, or who were convicted of refusing to provide a breath sample.

And as mentioned earlier, the province recently lengthened Interlock periods dramatically. Those periods may be extended if it is determined the driver still poses a significant risk to public safety.

“This technology allows government to have a very good sense of what’s happening with these individuals,” says Wilson. “It can tell whether or not somebody is trying to fool the technology, for example.”

Drivers need to blow into a tube to start their vehicle but the technology also requires further breath tests randomly while the vehicle is being driven. If the driver is not clean, the vehicle’s engine will shut down after a short period to give the driver time to find a safe place to park.

Drivers must apply to the Transportation Safety Board to have the device removed. Device records must show no fails or warnings in the previous three months to be eligible.

Interlock programs have proven their value in stopping drivers from getting behind the wheel after drinking and most provinces use the technology.