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The Human Cost Of Impaired Driving

Daniel was a tinkerer by nature – he loved working with his hands. As a young boy, he would tinker with bicycles and anything else he could take apart and put back together. This curiosity and intuitive knack for understanding how things worked led to a passion for cars and trucks as a young adult. By the time he was in his late twenties, he had a successful truck customization business and was well recognized in the industry. One fateful night, he decided to go out for a drink with some friends. Not being a heavy drinker, he usually drove his own vehicle, but on this night, he made a different decision. Daniel decided to get into a vehicle with a heavily intoxicated driver who flipped the vehicle several times. The driver walked away with minor injuries and a 14-year prison sentence; Daniel died instantly.

Krystal’s husband had just picked her up from work and they were traveling home with their young daughter in the back seat. Less than 15 minutes later, their vehicle was struck by an underage drunk driver. Krystal’s husband died on the way to the hospital, Krystal was in a coma for 30 days, and their daughter suffered a life-altering brain injury and shock. Krystal was also pregnant. The impact of the crash caused her to have a miscarriage. The driver was high on drugs, had a blood alcohol content (BAC) more than twice the legal limit, and was driving in the wrong direction on the road. He did his time in prison, got married, and moved on with his life. Krystal’s husband’s life ended in an ambulance that night, and Krystal and her daughter’s lives were forever altered.

These stories and many more can be found on the MADD Canada website. Unfortunately, the costs of impaired driving are staggering. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 29 people die every day in the United States, one every 50 minutes, in an alcohol-related crash. The annual cost of alcohol-related crashes is over $44 billion annually. That is right, billion. Impaired driving is a real problem in our world today, and behind the stories and stats are real people with lives cut short or years wasted in a penitentiary.

Some Stats from the CDC in the US:

  • In 2016, 10,497 people died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, accounting for 28% of all traffic-related deaths in the United States.
  • Of the 1,233 traffic deaths among children ages 0 to 14 years in 2016, 214 (17%) involved an alcohol-impaired driver.
  • Drugs other than alcohol (legal and illegal) are involved in about 16% of motor vehicle crashes.
  • Marijuana use is increasing and 13% of nighttime, weekend drivers have marijuana in their system.
  • Marijuana users were about 25% more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers with no evidence of marijuana use.

Prison Sentences for Impaired Driving

Stories of impaired driving commonly focus on the victim; these stories are tragic and should not be undermined. However, there is another human cost to impaired driving, those of the offender. More than 1 million individuals were arrested in 2016 for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol in the US. Penalties for impaired driving can vary depending on the frequency of charge (or charges), the severity of the incident, and levels of alcohol or narcotics in the bloodstream. The prohibited levels include 80 milligrams of alcohol in the bloodstream (.08 BAC), 2-5 or more nanograms (ng) of THC (from marijuana), or 50 mg of alcohol and 2.5 ng of THC when used in combination. It is also important to recognize that these substances will have a different effect on every individual. Some will be able to tolerate higher levels of intoxicants while others while see effects at lower levels. Regardless, it is important to know the legal limits and not get behind the wheel if impaired at all.

In Canada, a first impaired driving offense will land a minimum of a $1,000 fine, with the maximum penalty being 10 years in jail. Subsequent offenses carry a minimum of 30 days in prison for a second offense and 120 days in jail for a third offense. Each offense carries a maximum of 10 years imprisonment. Having any detectable amount of LSD, psilocybin, psilocin (“magic mushrooms”), ketamine, PCP, cocaine, methamphetamine or 6-mam (a metabolite of heroin) in your system within two hours of driving is also prohibited. As each of these substances is also illegal, offenders may receive possession charges or other drug-related charges in addition to the impaired driving charge.

Dangers of Impaired Driving

Safe driving requires the ability to concentrate, make good judgments, and quickly react to situations. Drugs and alcohol impair all of these cognitive functions. Here are a few ways in which alcohol impairs your driving ability:

Slow Reaction Time: Being under the influence slows your response time, which greatly affects your ability to react to situations. If a driver stops or a pedestrian comes into the street, it takes longer for your brain to process the situation and respond accordingly.

Lack of Coordination: Being under the influence affects motor skills, such as hand, eye, and foot coordination. Having full control of your body is crucial to split-second reactions. Swaying, trouble walking, or an inability to stand straight are telltale signs of inebriation.

Reduced Concentration: Driving requires your undivided attention. Many variables affect your ability to get to your destination safely, such as weather and other road conditions, other vehicles, and traffic signals. Your attention span and your ability to react to these variables are significantly reduced when alcohol and drugs are in the bloodstream.

Decreased Vision: Individuals can experience reduced or impaired vision while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Impaired vision can affect the ability to judge distances, see what is in your peripheral vision, and see what is around you when looking straight ahead.

Inhibited Judgment: The brain controls how situations are judged or interpreted. When operating a vehicle, your judgment skill plays an important role in how the vehicle is operated. Drivers need to be able to foresee situations, stay alert, and be attentive at all times. While under the influence, your judgment skills are adversely affected.

Prevention Measures

The jury is still out on whether prison sentences work to deter future episodes of impaired driving. For some, a period behind bars may scare them straight. In other cases, there may be multiple convictions on the individual’s record, and they may see the number of times behind bars as a badge of honour. Two main strategies are often implemented to help deter impaired driving: ignition interlock devices and education.

Ignition interlock devices: These devices are in-car breathalyzers that prevent the car from starting until a breath sample is taken. Often, if there is any alcohol on the breath at all, the machine will block the driver from starting their vehicle. Once the vehicle is started, it will ask the driver for further samples at random intervals to ensure that no alcohol has entered the bloodstream. If a sample is not provided or if the BAC is over the limit, then an alarm will sound, the vehicle will shut down, and the incident will be recorded. This can be one of the best ways to deter impaired driving. Ignition interlock devices physically keep a vehicle from starting, or they turn it off, if alcohol is in the bloodstream or enters the bloodstream.

Education: Education stands as one of the best tools available to deter impaired driving. Knowledge is power, and when individuals begin to see the results of their actions, they have the tools to make better decisions. Simply putting individuals in jail, letting them detox, and then sending them back out into the streets with no understanding does not necessarily set people up for success in staying sober, or not getting behind the wheel while intoxicated again. Additionally, depending on where a convicted individual resides and how many convictions they have, there can be certain court-ordered driver education programs that are required. These programs could include a Driving Without Impaired (DWI) program, an Alcohol and Drug Education (ADE) program, and possibly an addictions assessment program.

Always have a plan to get home safely. Take a cab, an Uber, or public transit, or call a friend, and never get into a vehicle with someone who is visibly intoxicated. A buddy may be annoyed that they have to go out at 2 am, but they would rather have their friends alive. There are even programs that will meet you and drive your vehicle home. Time is one of our most valuable and fleeting resources. Poor judgments can lead to a loss of life (or multiple losses, depending on the severity of the accident). There are too many stories of bright minds, young and old, who get taken before they have a chance to make a real impact on the world. On the other side of the coin, years are wasted behind bars and individuals lose precious time sitting in prison. Nobody wins when individuals make the fateful decision to get behind the wheel while being impaired.


Photo credit: Jacqueline Wales. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.