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Son of former premier of Newfoundland Brian Tobin, Jack Tobin holds his head in his hands following his release on bond for $100,000 after being charged in the death of his friend. Mr. Tobin admitted he was intoxicated when the car he was driving ran over his friend. (Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press/Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press)
Son of former premier of Newfoundland Brian Tobin, Jack Tobin holds his head in his hands following his release on bond for $100,000 after being charged in the death of his friend. Mr. Tobin admitted he was intoxicated when the car he was driving ran over his friend. (Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press/Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press)

Why some Canadians still drive drunk Add to ...

This week, in an Ottawa courtroom, John Tobin pleaded guilty to killing a good friend while drunk behind the wheel of his truck two days before Christmas. He was doing "doughnuts" in a city parkade, when Alex Zolpis was dragged underneath and twisted into the drive shaft.

The story made news because Mr. Tobin is the 24-year-old son of a former Newfoundland premier. But the crime itself was tragically ordinary, as even the accused understood, offering a statement in the sobering shock of his arrest: "I drank. I drove. Now someone's dead."

More related to this story

In truth, this week was rife with allegations about people who drank and drove till someone died. In Calgary, a 22-year-old woman is on trial, accused of being impaired when she drove into a tree and killed the friend she was driving home from a pizza joint. A 16-year-old girl in Pelican Narrows, Sask., flipped a truck jammed with eight other teens on the highway. None wore a seatbelt; an 18-year-old died.

In Surrey, B.C., the family of a 22-year-old killed two weeks ago by an allegedly drunk driver started a petition for tougher sentences for the offence.

They advocate the kind of "substantial jail time" the Crown now seeks for Mr. Tobin.

And of course, unless we get very lucky, there will be more sad stories by Monday, it being Victoria Day, the summer-launching "two-four" weekend traditionally celebrated with cold beer and cottage parties.

Drunk driving remains the leading cause of criminal death in Canada. The number of people killed by drunk drivers, averaging about 800 a year, is significantly down from the 1,296 victims in 1995, but the decline has slowed in the last decade.

In 2009, the latest year for which national statistics are available, police reported about 85,000 cases of impaired driving - notable because it was the third consecutive year in which charges increased, after nearly 25 years of decline.

Indeed, from 2006 to 2009, the number of recorded drunk-driving incidents jumped about 16 per cent. Some provinces, such as Manitoba, recorded much larger increases, nearly 30 per cent; elsewhere, as in Ontario, the change was marginal.

It could be that police are getting better at catching drunks on the road, or investing more resources in doing so. But the fact remains that despite an overall drop in the crime rate, drunk driving remains a stubbornly persistent issue.

Why, after all this time and public education, have some Canadians failed to learn their limits? What is stopping these drivers from leaving their keys at home?

"It was negative-35 outside, and it was literally 500 metres," recalls J.B., a 26-year-old Ottawa man, describing a time he drove home after downing seven pints of beer - an amount he admits undoubtedly put him over the legal limit.

"I went, 'Uh, it's really cold,' and I drove home." Travelling such a short distance, he assumed nothing would happen, though in the morning, he realized he should have walked.

Still, he protests, "It's not like I was stumbling outside drunk."

That kind of defensiveness is part of the crux of the problem, says Tim Stockwell, a psychology professor at the University of Victoria and director of the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. But simpler still, we are a society of enthusiastic drinkers that's also car-dependent.

"This is not an area where education really works. You're just pushing upstream against strong forces," he says. "We need to drive. We like to drink. It's difficult and inconvenient to not do the things we like and need to do."

A fatal guessing game

Since 1978, a Nova Scotia man named Terry Naugle has racked up 23 impaired-driving and related offences, earning him infamy as one of the most persistent drunk drivers in Canada. Most recently he drew an eight-year sentence for fleeing the scene of an accident.

There's a prevailing stereotype that chronic alcoholics like him are the main perpetrators of drunk driving - and certainly they are a significant factor.

But Robert Solomon, a University of Western Ontario law professor and director of legal policy for Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada (MADD), says research has shown that at least one-third of all drunk driving fatalities are caused by teenagers and 20-somethings, overwhelmingly young men, usually on drinking binges.

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