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Police set up a check stop in downtown Victoria as they crack down on intoxicated drivers.

Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

With holiday parties, is this the worst time of the year for impaired driving? Or are people finally getting the message and taking Uber? – Li, Edmonton

When it comes to drunks on the road, it may be safer to get home during the holidays than the rest of the year.

"It used to be the worst time of the year, because of all the Christmas parties and people drinking too much and getting behind the wheel," said Andrew Murie, Mothers Against Drink Driving Canada chief executive. "Now, I often tell people, if we took our behaviour in December and applied it to the other 11 months of the year, we'd probably have a lot less deaths and injuries from impaired driving – because the programs are working."

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According to the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF), nearly 28 per cent of drivers killed in crashes during the holiday season in 2014 had alcohol in their blood. That's down from nearly 38 per cent 10 years before.

For the rest of 2014, the most recent year with data, 31.5 per cent of fatally injured drivers tested positive for alcohol.

"These data suggest that the sustained and consistent enforcement each year has probably had a strong deterrent effect, so these incidents are less likely during the Christmas/New Year holiday season," said Karen Bowman, TIRF spokeswoman, in an e-mail.

The worst time of the year? Fall just beats out summer. For 2014, the rates were highest in the fall (32 per cent), followed by summer (31 per cent), spring (28 per cent) and winter (20 per cent).

During the holidays, police are "out in full force," Murie said. And people use taxis, safe-ride programs, including Operation Red Nose, and ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.

"Quite honestly, if you get caught impaired driving in December, you're quite foolish because there are a lot of alternatives," Murie said.

Looking at the research, there's no clear answer whether safe-ride programs are directly responsible for lower impaired fatality and arrest rates, Bowman said.

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"The available evidence suggests safe-ride programs are a promising method to decrease incidents of alcohol-impaired driving," she said. "But further exploration of these effects is necessary in order to conclude these programs are definitively effective."

The Uber effect?

What about ride sharing? A 2017 study by researchers at Western Carolina University looked at U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation crime data in certain U.S. counties to see the impact of Uber. It found that impaired driving dropped by 6 per cent to 27 per cent after Uber entered a market.

"We can't see it in Canada yet because we haven't had ride-sharing long enough, but when you talk to police in the U.S., they'll say they're having a hard time finding impaired drivers," Murie said. "We used to get calls all the time that people couldn't get cabs – that has stopped."

Uber's surge pricing led to an Edmonton man getting charged more than $1,100 for a 63-kilometre trip – 8.9 times the normal rate – early on New Year's Day in 2016. But Murie doesn't think those reports of extreme surge pricing is scaring people from calling Uber when they shouldn't be driving.

"That was a PR nightmare – companies are learning and those stories have gone away," Murie said. "I think people are savvy – they know there are times during the day when ride-sharing costs go up and go down. And there are also shared rides – there are many options."

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But, those options aren't available to people in small rural communities that don't have taxis or ride-sharing, Murie said.

"A good chunk of the fatalities occur on two-lane roads – so our hope is that ride-sharing, because it has such a low operating cost, will go into these communities where taxis can't afford to operate," he said. "We haven't seen that yet – but we're hoping we will."

Better safe

How much can you drink and be safe to drive? Canada's low-risk alcohol guidelines say people shouldn't drink and drive at all.

The Criminal Code defines impaired driving as a blood-alcohol content (BAC) at or above 0.08, which is 80 milligrams of alcohol for every 100 millilitres of blood. However, every province except Quebec has administrative laws that allow police to suspend your licence on the spot if your BAC is over 0.05 (0.04 in Saskatchewan and 0.06 in the Yukon).

With alcohol, gender, race and weight all affect how much someone can drink before hitting the 0.05 limit.

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"If you have a glass of wine or a beer and you wait a couple of hours, you're fine," Murie said.

But that changes if you've been smoking weed. In reports from 2013, a growing number of drivers killed in crashes had either drugs or a combination of alcohol and drugs in their blood.

"What we're seeing is alcohol numbers way down, but drugs and the combination of alcohol and drugs are up significantly," Murie said. "This was long before legalization, so we're seeing the effects of dispensaries and medical cannabis. Unfortunately, young people don't see cannabis as much of an issue."

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada's a big place, so please let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

Shopping for a new car? Check out the new Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.

Lou Trottier from All About Imports runs through the vital things to check to make sure your car is ready to face a Canadian winter.
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