Seated in his wheelchair, looking out at a slushy winter landscape that was a “nightmare” to roll around in, Kevin Brooks is on break between school visits. But in a couple of hours he’ll be back on stage, telling the story of driving drunk — and causing the crash that claimed his best friend — one more time.
“The cool thing is I’ve got a good rapport with young people, which is why I’m still speaking in schools at 40 and they’re not like ‘whatever, old man,’ ” he says of the speaking engagements he’s been giving at schools across North America since his tragic decision two decades ago, when he became a passionate advocate against drinking and driving.
Drunk driving charges have plummeted across Canada since the 1980s, but a recent survey shows a spike in drivers who admit to driving drunk. The question is, despite decades of work by advocates like Brooks, why does it persist?
The Traffic Injury Research Foundation recently released its annual survey, in which 8.6 per cent of those who responded said they’d gotten behind the wheel despite believing themselves to be over the legal alcohol limit.
Although the number of people fessing up to drinking and driving had been inching up since 2015, the most recent result from 2019 saw a 56 per cent increase over the previous year of 5.5 per cent.
Efforts to reduce drunk driving in Canada have been largely successful — with both deaths and incidents dropping sharply over the past three decades.
But as Toronto mourns the deaths of two international students killed in a suspected impaired driving crash in late December, advocates say the fight is far from over.
The Toronto case is before the courts, but Michael Johnson, 40, of Pickering, is facing nine charges, including multiple counts each of impaired driving causing death. If convicted, it would put him among a dwindling group of perpetrators.
According to Statistics Canada, there were just over 72,000 police-reported impaired driving incidents in 2015, the most recently available numbers. That’s the lowest number of impaired driving incidents since they started collecting data in 1986.
Michael Weinrath, a criminologist from the University of Winnipeg Criminal Justice Department, said that the “significant progress” on drunk driving that began in the 1980s was the result of big changes in government legislation, advocacy and a greater concern for individual health — “excessive alcohol consumption became not the thing to do,” he said.
But he’s not convinced that one year of survey results is enough to indicate a change in that downward trend.
The survey asked two questions about respondents’ drinking habits before getting behind the wheel: The first was if they had driven with any alcohol in their system within the last year. The second question was if they had driven while believing themselves to be over the legal limit.
The results showed that fewer people — just under 15 per cent — admitted to driving with any alcohol in their system. That’s down from 20 per cent in 2018.
Steve Brown, a research associate with TIRF, said it’s “puzzling,” then, that more people seem willing to admit to driving drunk.
According to literature surrounding impaired driving “there is the hard-core drinking driver; it may be that these are the people who are hard to reach, with programs or legislation or messaging,” he said.
The survey also found that of those who reported driving while over the limit, two thirds said they did most of their drinking in the company of close friends, family or a partner, which might indicate a greater need for education of those close to drinkers.
“These people that are drinking and driving are engaging in this behaviour when they’re in the company of someone that would have a vested interest that this person doesn’t do anything unsafe,” Brown said.
But Andrew Murie, CEO of MADD Canada, says a shift in focus from drunk driving to driving while high and driving while distracted is also a problem.
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He says the “dramatic” reduction in drunk driving rates in recent decades is the result of a lot of police work and advocacy — work that is now being stretched thin by other traffic safety concerns.
When cannabis was legalized, he said, MADD, like most traffic safety organizations, had to adapt its own tools and programming to accommodate cannabis-impaired driving, in addition to drunk driving. He points out that police are now tasked with dealing with a new kind of impairment and enforcement as well, often without additional funding.
The end result, he said, is less attention paid to drunk driving — to the detriment of road safety.
“I still see alcohol as the number one killer on the roadway, and it’s been pushed aside with legalizing cannabis and all the issues related to that.”
Brooks, who lives just outside Vancouver, said that through his work, he’s seen attitudes change as successive classes of kids realize driving drunk isn’t OK. Yet, kids often approach him after he speaks to tell him that yes, some of them are still getting behind the wheel drunk.
When Brooks crashed his car in 2000, he was 21 and he describes his group of friends at the time as “party animals,” many of whom drove drunk regularly. On the night it happened, he ran into some old hockey friends, and one beer led to many.
“You feel invincible, like nothing could ever go wrong,” he said of his mindset before he got behind the wheel. “You just kind of wanted to be a badass.”
He said that in his experience, once people have driven drunk a few times and not been caught, they start to think they’re immune to consequences, making the dangerous habit a difficult one to break.
After the crash that killed his friend, Brooks pled guilty to dangerous driving causing death and had his licence suspended, in addition to fines and community service but managed to avoid jail time, something he attributes to the generosity and forgiveness of his friend’s family.
Since then he estimates he’s spoken at more than a thousand middle and high schools, in addition to colleges and universites. He says he’d like to see the government prioritize transit and rideshares so it’s easier for people to make the smart choice.
He’s also hopeful for technological adaptations like driverless cars, and what they might eventually mean for road safety.
“I think eventually, with technology, maybe we won’t be driving, but I think as long as people are consuming alcohol and have a set of keys, you know, some people unfortunately will make that decision.”
Numbers were drawn from a public-opinion poll of 1,200 Canadians between September and October of 2019, the results of which are considered accurate within plus or minus 2.8 per cent.