The smell of liquor-infused breath is unmistakable.
Just ask any police officer in Canada who works checkstops, says RCMP Southern Alberta media liaison Cpl. Darrin Turnbull, who is also head of the Airdrie Integrated Traffic Unit and has dealt with plenty of impaired drivers.
“One of the first tell-tale signs is the smell of liquor. They pull up at a checkstop and we smell liquor even on the person who has only had a glass of wine at dinner,” Turnbull said.
And don’t bother trying to mask the odour.
“We do see the person who lights up a cigarette as they pull into the checkstop or they throw gum or candy in their mouth. We can still smell it.”
All officers need is reasonable suspicion and they can demand drivers provide a sample of their breath into a roadside screening device.
Refusal to provide a breath sample is a criminal offence that comes with an immediate driving suspension.
Turnbull said the highest blood alcohol concentration he’s seen was .42, or 420 mg of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood. That’s five times higher than Canada’s legal impairment level of .08. and eight times over .05, which now triggers stiffer penalties in Alberta.
He said that seasoned drinker, who was caught after a minor collision, was still walking, with some stumbling, and talking, with some slurring.
“Anyone at 50 mg of alcohol in their blood would be affected by the alcohol, and a person at 80 milligrams of alcohol or above would be impaired by the alcohol.
How easy it is to see impairment in each individual person varies with each individual person,” Turnbull said.
According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving:
• At .02, or 20 mg of alcohol, there is a predictable decline in rapid tracking of a moving object.
• At .05, there is a predictable reduction in co-ordination and ability to track moving objects, difficulty steering, and reduced response to emergency driving situations.
• At .08, there is a predictable effect on concentration, speed control, short-term memory loss, impaired perception, and reduced information capability (for example signal detection, visual search).
The amount of alcohol required to impair drivers differs according to how fast a person drinks, their weight and food intake when drinking. Blood alcohol levels also rise quicker for women than men.
In December, Maclean’s magazine ranked Red Deer as having the second highest rate of impaired driving incidents in 2011 among Canada’s 100 largest populations, according to crime data from Statistics Canada.
Grande Prairie had the highest impaired incident rate of 975.7 per 100,000 people, followed by Red Deer with a rate of 847, Medicine Hat with 686.1, Kelowna with 637.6, and Prince George with 629.1.
In Red Deer, only 381 people went on to be charged.
Supt. Warren Dosko, head of Red Deer City RCMP, said with an average of roughly one impaired charge a day, there’s significant costs to society.
“We do charge a fair number of impaired drivers and the fact that we do have lots of people reporting it, that tells me there must be quite a few people out their driving,” Dosko said.
“For us, impaired driving is a priority for policing. In 2011, there was a considerable effort spent detecting impaired drivers. So of course, that influences numbers. Your numbers are skewed a bit little by a community that has that as a priority versus a community that doesn’t.”
Dosko said demographics and economics definitely play a role in Red Deer’s impaired driving rate.
“Young males with lots of disposable income in their hands can certainly be a factor.”
He’s interested to see the impact of Alberta’s new impaired driving legislation.
“We’re going to see either a significant drop because of the legislation or not, and if not, how come?” Dosko said.
MADD Canada CEO Andrew Murie said Albertans did plenty of “belly aching and crying” about its new legislation, but it will have an affect on impaired drivers.
However, three factors — Alberta’s privatized system for alcohol sales, its legal age of 18 to buy liquor and its legal driving age of 14, for a learner’s permit — stand in the way of an even better outcome, Murie said.
“There’s all kinds of evidence that shows (privatization) makes it easier for people to get alcohol. It makes it easier for young people to get alcohol under age.”
Teens are also quicker to complete Alberta’s graduated driving licensing system.
“The ability to drive at 14 in Alberta boggles the mind. All the experts say the minimum age to even start to get behind the wheel is 16.”
In Alberta, a 14-year-old can only drive under strict guidelines, including that an adult must be present at all times.
Mix together young people, alcohol and driving and it can be tragic, he said.
“Their method of drinking is to get drunk. That’s why even though they only represent 13 per cent of the population when you look at things like impaired driving, they represent one-third of the deaths.
“The vast majority of people who go through a binge drinking stage come out the other side. And parents a lot of times will allow that behaviour with their own kids because they survived it themselves. You know what? Just because you survived it doesn’t mean your kids are going to survive it,” Murie said.
Canada has developed low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines to assist Canadians to moderate their consumption and reduce immediate and long term, alcohol-related harm.
Introduced in November 2011 by the National Alcohol Strategy Advisory Committee, the guidelines recommend a limit of 10 standard drinks per week for women, with no more than two drinks most days, and 15 standard drinks per week for men, with no more than three drinks most days.
“At every point of sale for alcohol, there should be information on the low-risk drinking guidelines,” Murie said.
That’s already happening in Ontario, where alcohol sales are managed by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.
“I can bet you a lot of money, if you went to an Alberta liquor store, you’re not going to find that kind of public information because it’s not in (the store’s) best interest.”
The public also needs labels on alcohol, he said.
“To understand low-risk drinking guidelines you need to know when you’re serving or when you’re looking to purchase a bottle what’s a standard drink and how many are in this bottle.”
Murie said labelling could be the start of something good.
“If you think about what happened with trans fat once it became a labelling factor, people changed, manufacturers changed. If it’s on the bottle, if it’s on the packaging — that’s a huge step forward in public education.”