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(Neal Cresswell for The Globe and Mail/Neal Cresswell for The Globe and Mail)
(Neal Cresswell for The Globe and Mail/Neal Cresswell for The Globe and Mail)

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Sobering thoughts on DUIs Add to ...

"Play it smart." "Arrive alive; drive sober." "Think before you drink."

For many years, public campaigns had been pushing drinking-and-driving numbers down. But this week, astonishingly, Statistics Canada reported that while overall crime statistics have dropped, impaired-driving offences rose for the third consecutive year - a 3-per-cent increase in 2009.

Why are we still jumping into our cars after a night on the town? We campaign effectively against bullying, and fat, and sugar. We've banned cellphones from cars. Anti-smoking campaigns have produced results: Health Canada declared a decline in deaths attributable to smoking. Yet social engineering stops at the bar counter.

There is some progress. The Calgary Stampede just reported that the 10-day event saw fewer impaired-driving charges across the city compared with the previous year. From 2009 to 2010, charges dropped roughly 50 per cent, to 53 from 102.

But the 3-per-cent uptick still represents 88,630 impaired-driving offences in 2009, the highest level in more than a decade. "I thought it was an issue in retreat," Michael Middelaer says.

Mr. Middelaer and his wife, Laurel, lost their four-year-old daughter, Alexa, in May, 2008, to an allegedly impaired driver in Delta, B.C. They have been warriors for the cause, standing next to B.C. Solicitor-General Mike de Jong this year as he announced measures to reduce drunk-driving fatalities in B.C. by a third in three years.

There is good news and bad news in the Statscan figures.

Good: The national increase could reflect stronger police crackdowns. John Turner, program chief of the policing services program for Statistics Canada, said from Ottawa that the numbers appear to be enforcement-driven. "Clearly the more RIDE programs, the more checks that police use, the more impaired drivers they will find," he said.

Bad: Drunk drivers haven't gone away, they've just been hidden.

"What these numbers tell us is that some people still don't get it," said Matt Torigian, chief of police for the Waterloo Regional Police Service and co-chair of the police information and statistics committee of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

B.C., considered one of the softest provinces, just came forth with severe measures. The amended Motor Vehicle Act will let police impose tougher roadside penalties for drivers who refuse a breath sample or are found with a blood-alcohol level over the legal limit of 0.08 per cent. Drivers face an immediate, 90-day driving ban and a $500 fine, plus their vehicle can be impounded for 30 days.

Increased promotion of alcohol products could be one culprit, says Robert Solomon, a law professor at the University of Western Ontario and director of legal policy for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

"Alcohol is the only intoxicating substance we mass advertise and mass market in our society. That's the simple reality," he said.

To avoid turning off youth with public service announcements, Brian Howlett, chief creative officer of Toronto Agency59, says he uses peer characters and humour that might make the 19-to-24-year-old target audience receptive. In the latest instalment of the "Know when to Draw the Line" campaign developed for Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd. - a webisode - five characters called "Crash Bobbles," suffering life-changing injuries after alcohol-related crashes, shoot the breeze about their injuries after partying at high-boozing functions, Homecoming, Halloween, the Long Weekend.

This week's impaired-driving statistics, Mr. Howlett says, shows that it is an ongoing mission through the "peaks and valleys" of the issue. "It's not the magic bullet that's going to make them stop drinking and driving."

Tough economic times could also account for the rising numbers. Robert Mann, a senior scientist at the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health in Toronto and a member of the board of MADD, points to the general trend to harder drinking among kids and adults.

"There have been some indications that drinking is increasing in recent years, along with binge drinking," he says. "I don't think the data are there to allow us to make a direct link [between the recession and increased rates of drunk driving]... but a recession causes economic distress. People are worried about their jobs and worried about their finances. It is possible that will increase drunk-driving rates as well. It is possible to make an indirect link."

As Mr. Middelaer and his wife await the verdict on the case (Carol Berner, 57, is facing charges of impaired driving and dangerous driving in the death of their daughter), which will be handed down Tuesday, he says, "We entertain, and alcohol is always there. We're certainly not anti-alcohol. ... Make some responsible choices.

Follow on Twitter: @ianabailey

 

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