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Untangling the Presence of Alcohol and Drugs in Fatally Injured Drivers in Canada

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When Canadian media reports on impaired driving fatalities, they frequently refer to Canada as having the “worst rate of drunk driving deaths in the developed world.” The reporting typically cites “1,500” as the average annual number of impaired-driving-related fatalities and often calls drunk driving Canada’s “deadliest crime.” A flurry of such articles was released in February of 2021, with the coverage of Marco Muzzo’s release from prison . A Toronto resident and member of one of the country’s wealthiest families, Muzzo had been imprisoned in 2016 for killing three young children and their grandfather after plowing into their minivan while highly intoxicated.

Impaired driving may indeed still be Canada’s deadliest crime, but the problem with the reporting is that it is outdated. The cited rate of drunk driving is based on a 2016 U.S. Centers for Disease Control study which looked at alcohol impairment-related road deaths in the world’s 19 wealthiest countries earlier in the decade.

With this in mind, the experienced DUI lawyers at the Greater Toronto Area’s Mass Tsang law firm decided to take a deeper look into the issue to determine whether Canada continues to experience high rates of impaired driving fatality numbers. In particular, we tried to seek out numbers relating to the presence of alcohol and drugs in the country’s fatally injured drivers. Such numbers might provide insight into whether Canadian DUI laws are helping curb the number of impaired driving-related fatalities. They might also show whether the country’s 2018 legalization of cannabis may have led to increased impaired driving fatalities.

Unfortunately, recent research into such deaths appears to be limited, and various reports present a mixed message on the scope of the problem. Overall, we found more information about Ontario impaired driver-related fatalities than we were numbers on the national scale. Here is what we found:

Canadian Impaired Driving Fatality Overview

According to the Government of Canada’s latest (2020) Canadian Motor Vehicle Traffic Collision Statistics , the number of annual traffic fatalities in the country has declined significantly in the past two decades. In 2001, the country recorded 2,758 traffic fatalities, compared with only 1,745 in 2020. Impaired-driving-related fatalities also appear to be in decline, though the report only covers such data from 2016-2020. In 2016, impaired driving was listed as a contributing factor (of which there could be more than one) in 26.3% of fatal collisions, but this figure declined to 17.6% in 2020. Unfortunately, the 2020 figure represents a slight uptick from the 15.4% cited as a contributing factor in 2019. Determining whether this uptick might be related to marijuana legalization will require more in-depth research, as called for by road safety interest groups.

Despite the declines, these numbers still point to impaired driving as a significant road safety concern. Consider that the 17.6% contributing factor figure suggests that more than 300 people were killed on Canadian roads in 2020 due at least in part to impaired driving. The only silver lining is that this number is far below the 1,500 so often cited in recent news reporting. In fact, the data suggests that impaired-driving-related fatalities were not even close to half the oft-cited 1,500 figure, at least since 2016.

2020 Study Suggests Impaired Driving Deaths Are High in Ontario

A 2020 study by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addition and the Centre of Forensic Sciences took a closer look at the presence of impairing substances in Ontario drivers killed in motor vehicle crashes. Researchers found that more than 53% of fatally injured Ontario drivers examined from 2016-2018 tested positive for alcohol, cannabis, or another psychoactive drug. Toxicological results of 921 fatally injured drivers revealed that 251 tested positive for tetrahydrocannabinol (TCH, the primary psychoactive ingredient of cannabis), 241 for alcohol, and 235 positive for other drugs. In 38% of fatalities, more than one substance was detected. Broken down by gender, alcohol and THC were the most commonly detected substance found in male drivers, while female drivers more frequently tested positive for drugs other than cannabis, particularly medications with depressant effects.

Drug-related fatalities were involved in the most multi-vehicle crashes but displayed no distinct timing patterns. Alcohol-related fatalities tended to involve single-vehicle collisions and were most common during weekends. The report concluded that driver characteristics indicate a different approach needs to be developed for drug-impaired drivers. The report also recommended that driver fatalities should continue to be monitored for impairment.

Impaired driving by drugs and/or alcohol has long been a problem, as a similar Canada-wide study conducted a decade ago found that 56.7% of fatally injured drivers between 2000 and 2010 had detectable amounts of impairing substance in their blood. This figure is likely low, though, as only about 60% of drivers were tested for drugs (96% for alcohol).

Another Study Shows Downtick in Alcohol-Impaired Driver Fatalities

Another Canadian government report—“ Assessment of the Initial Impact of Mandatory Alcohol Screening on Alcohol-Involved Driver Fatalities in Canada ”—suggests a downtick in alcohol-impaired driver fatalities, perhaps influenced by Canada’s new Mandatory Alcohol Screening (MAS) law. The 2020 study was specifically designed to provide an initial assessment of the new law’s effectiveness by comparing death rates in the three years prior to its enactment with the first year of enforcement.

Researchers examined the collective number of fatally injured drivers impaired by alcohol in five provinces—Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan—from 2016 to 2019. Of 745 total driver fatalities in the provinces in 2016, 169 were deemed impaired by alcohol. Similar numbers were recorded in 2017 and 2018, but in 2019 total fatalities declined to 704, with 104 of these considered to be impaired by alcohol. Researchers determined that this represented a 39% decline in 2019 impaired driver fatalities from the average of the previous three years, a far more significant decrease than the 6.1% reduction in non-impaired driver fatalities.

Meanwhile, the report noted that the number of impaired driving incidents investigated by police country-wide increased by almost 22% in 2019. Researchers said this was not likely due to an overall increase in impaired driving behavior. Instead, using MAS allowed police to “become more effective at identifying drinking drivers who might otherwise have gone undetected.”

In conclusion, the report stated that the findings from the study “provide reason for optimism about the beneficial impact of MAS in Canada.” As the initial data used for the report was limited, researchers called for further investigation to assess the longer-term effectiveness of MAS.”

More Research Obviously Needed

Available recent studies show that the number of annual Canadian traffic fatalities caused by impaired driving is significantly lower than the oft-cited 1,500 figure. Data suggests that impaired-driving fatalities are declining in Canada and that stricter enforcement measures—such as MAS—are helping spur the declines. That said, the number of fatally injured drivers with alcohol and/or drugs in their systems remains high, especially considering Ontario’s numbers. Additionally, the impact of marijuana legalization on impaired driving death numbers remains unclear. Initial research suggests that more drivers are driving while impaired by cannabis, but it is not yet known whether this is increasing the number of impaired driving-related deaths.

Seek Out the Best Toronto DUI Criminal Defence with Mass Tsang

To make sure that you do not become a statistic in research like that highlighted above, the lawyers of Mass Tsang advise you to avoid getting behind the wheel after consuming alcohol or drugs. It’s just not worth it. Even if you do not end up as a traffic fatality statistic, you could easily become an arrest statistic.

If you do become a DUI arrest statistic, we suggest you contact the highly skilled DUI criminal defence lawyers at Mass Tsang to avoid the life-changing impacts that can result from a criminal conviction. Your Mass Tsang lawyer can strategize a solid defence designed to secure acquittals, withdrawn or dismissed charges, negotiated plea deals for reduced charges, a discharge, or other favourable outcomes as warranted by the details of your case. To secure the most effective defense to DUI charges in the Greater Toronto Area, contact the experienced DUI lawyers at Mass Tsang today.

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