November 22, 2018

In mid-February 1993, Carolyn Swinson was supposed to have been enjoying a vacation in Florida with her family. Instead, she was mourning her son, killed in an alcohol-related crash.

Swinson, her husband and their daughter were out doing last minute shopping on Feb. 12, 1993, a Friday, in preparation for their vacation the following week.

“Then we went home, and we were all sitting in the basement watching the television,” Swinson said. “About 10:15 p.m., our doorbell rang.”

Swinson said she thought it was her son Rob.

“He moved out of the house about six weeks before, and he often worked until 9 p.m.,” she said. “We figured that he was just stopping by.”

Swinson’s husband went upstairs to answer the door.

“There was no noise (from upstairs). It was just really quiet, so eventually we decided we better find out, so we went upstairs,” said Swinson, an Etobicoke resident. “There’s a mother’s instinct. When I saw who was standing in the doorway, it was a police officer, I knew exactly why he was there, but my husband turned around and told me that Rob had been killed and that the officer was there to take us to the hospital.”

The two-car crash that took Rob’s life had occurred an hour earlier at Markham Road and McNicoll Avenue.

The drive to the hospital, said Swinson, “was probably the longest ride I’ll ever take in my life.”

Rob, 27, the co-owner of a bicycle store, had gone out to buy his girlfriend a Valentine’s gift.

“He was driving southbound and the young woman (in another car) was driving northbound, and the witnesses that were travelling behind her said they saw her starting to fishtail and lose control of the car,” said Swinson, adding the front seat of her son’s car was pushed into the back seat as a result of the impact.

Swinson said police told her the female driver had a BAC (blood alcohol content) of 200 (which is more than twice the legal limit). However, the judge wouldn’t allow the breathalyzer test to be used as evidence so the driver was acquitted, Swinson said.

Tests showed Rob had no alcohol in his system.

Though it’s been more than 25 years since her son was killed, Swinson said the grief hasn’t gone away.

“I wish I could tell people that the pain is less, but it isn’t. I mean there’s not one single day that I don’t miss my son,” she said. “The pain and sadness doesn’t go away. You lose a child, and it takes the joy out of your life because there’s always a piece missing.”

Swinson said the holiday season is especially difficult as there’s “always that empty space” at the table.

“You really don’t know how to celebrate. You don’t know whether you should be doing the things that you’ve always done or whether you do something different,” she said. “It’s important that you keep some kind of normalcy for others, but there are times when I have to go and find a quiet spot because I don’t want people to see that I’m crying.”

Rob was the second family member Swinson lost as a result of an impaired-driving-related collision.

Her father Scott Buxton was killed Feb. 13, 1981 as he crossed the road while walking home in Leek, England. “He was hit by a young man who had been out on a pub crawl,” said Swinson, adding the driver was only convicted of failing to remain at the scene of the crash and received the equivalent of a $500 fine and a six-month licence suspension.

“If people could walk in the shoes of somebody who’s lost somebody, they will probably think twice about going out and drinking and driving,” Swinson said.

And that’s why, she said, she’s been volunteering with Mothers Against Drunk Driving for the past 25 years.

Most Fridays at lunch, she shares her story with high school students. She also runs a support group for victims of impaired driving and speaks to groups of people who’ve been convicted of impaired driving.

“We hope that if you actually have a victim go and talk to them, they won’t go out and do it again,” Swinson said.

Last Thursday at the Toronto Police College in Etobicoke, police launched their annual holiday RIDE campaign.

Police stressed impaired driving is a choice and is completely preventable. It’s also the leading cause of criminal death in Canada.

Supt. Scott Baptist, unit commander of traffic services, said more than 7,000 people called Toronto police this year to report an impaired driver.

“We also need to hold our friends and our family accountable,” he said in an interview. “Talk to the people beside us that are about to drive impaired and say, ‘Hang on, you can’t do that. Someone’s going to get hurt, someone could be killed.’ It’s a tough message to get out.”

Toronto Police Service has laid 907 impaired-driving-related charges so far this year (as of Nov. 16), compared to 1,192 in all of 2017.

The service has 17 accredited drug recognition evaluators and more than 300 officers trained in field sobriety testing.

“Our goal eventually is to have every front line uniformed police officer trained in standardized field sobriety testing,” Baptist said.

Baptist noted police haven’t seen a spike in impaired driving since pot became legal last month.

“Let’s be honest, marijuana is not new. This plant did not get invented on Oct. 17,” he said. “People have been smoking marijuana and using marijuana in this city for many, many years. This is not a new problem. We’ve been dealing with this for many years.”

However, Baptist said he worries that there may be a misperception that driving high is OK.

“The issue of using cannabis and driving while under the influence of cannabis are two very, very different things,” he said. “(Driving high) is in no way right and it is completely illegal.”

Teresa Di Felice, assistant vice president of CAA, said a study of Ontario motorists this year found 1.9 million drivers have tried cannabis and 735,000 of them drove high within the last three months of the study, which was conducted before pot became legal.

More than 205,000 motorists, she said, consumed alcohol and cannabis at the same time and got behind the wheel.

“The other thing that our study showed is there is a group out there that are feeling that they drive the same or better when they’re high than if they were sober,” Di Felice said. “We know from how drugs can affect your reaction time and your abilities that that’s not the case.”

Anne Leonard, president of Arrive Alive Drive Sober, said studies have also found that many people don’t know the penalties for impaired driving.

“We have really significant consequences for the mistake of driving after drinking and driving after smoking pot,” she said. “It’s important that people refresh their knowledge of what those penalties are and then change their behaviour.”

Leonard, whose husband was hit and severely injured in an impaired driving crash in 1979, said the penalty for impaired driving at the time was a $50 fine and a short licence suspension.

“It really used to be a slap on the wrist. It isn’t anymore.”