One of the issues surrounding drunk driving is the "often conflicting and sometimes inaccurate" messages in the public domain about the problem.
These diverse messages not only confuse the public, but also policy makers and administrators. A recent report attempts to clarify the facts about impaired driving and encourage informed decisions about effective solutions.
In its decade-long project, Canada's Traffic Injury Research Foundation reviewed literature, conducted focus groups and surveyed more than 5,000 people involved in the criminal justice system - including police, prosecutors, judges and probation officers.
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The TIRF report described the various types of drinking drivers identified in the report: legal drinking drivers, first offenders, high-risk offenders, young drinking drivers and female drunk drivers. TIRF says that while they share some common characteristics, "it is important to recognize the diversity of the group" and the need for a range of programs and policies to address the problem.
TIRF says the criminal justice system is complex and poorly understood. As it pertains to drunk driving, it involves enforcement, prosecution, adjudication and monitoring. The report says decision-makers need better insight, communication, co-ordination and co-operation to "help set consistent priorities in terms of targets and interventions."
The report identifies a number of key areas and issues, among them:
• Adequate staffing, training, tools and resources.
• Getting and keeping drunk drivers off the road, makes communities safer.
• Meaningful and appropriate supervision ensures offenders do not slip through the cracks
• Assessment and treatment as tools for targeting high-risk offenders.
• Information sharing among agencies
Among the findings of this extensive study was the fact that intensive intervention can actually harm low-risk offenders. "The placement of low-risk offenders in intensive interventions or programs exposes them to high-risk offenders who can be a potentially negative influence and manipulative."
It goes on to dispel a large number of myths and misconceptions about driving under the influence:
• All drunk drivers are the same. Drunk drivers come from many walks of life, are both male and female, of different ages and levels of education and achievement and their socio-economic and criminal activity varies greatly. TIRF says it is "essential to have a broad range of countermeasures available" to address the problem.
• There but for the grace of God go I. People tend to sympathize with drunk drivers because they had, on occasion, driven after drinking themselves. TIRF says facts show the average person rarely consumes enough alcohol to exceed the legal limit, let alone by two to three times. "Research shows that most offenders drink and drive several times before they are caught."
TIRF says sympathy should be reserved for the victims of a tragic encounter with a drunk driver, rather than with the driver. "The public and politicians need to be more cognizant of the seriousness of the offence and the threat these drivers pose on the roadways," TIRF says.
• One size fits all is an effective strategy. The report says there is no single solution to deal with the many types of offenders.
"Of paramount importance, agencies need to emphasize that low-level interventions are more appropriate for low-risk offenders as research shows that intervening too severely can do more harm than good. For high-risk offenders, sanctions should balance punishment, surveillance, and rehabilitation."
• Drunk drivers will not change their behaviour. The report says the best approach is to identify individual needs and match them with appropriate interventions. "By matching an offender with the most appropriate interventions (that take into account factors such as gender or cultural background), 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.
• Treatment is soft on crime. The report says studies have shown treatment costs less than incarceration and that "interventions that combine a balance between punishment, surveillance and rehabilitation have the best outcomes."
• Increasing penalties increases deterrence. The study says that the getting-tough-on-crime approach has limited effect on habitual offenders.
The report concludes by saying a better understanding of offenders is necessary to design appropriate and effective measures.
Halifax-based Richard Russell runs a driving school.