March 18, 2020
It’s been more than 26 years since Susan MacAskill lost her dad.
The painful memories of his last 10 days have never waned.
“Sometimes it seems like forever, sometimes it seems like yesterday,” she said. “It is constantly on my mind.”
Her father and stepmother were driving through Glenholme when a drunk driver crossed into their lane.
“When they crested the hill there was a car on their side. So, that man hit them head on,” she said.
For the next 10 days her father laid in the hospital in a comatose state until MacAskill and her family had no choice but to say goodbye.
“Having to say, ‘yes you have our permission to turn life support off,’ that is the toughest decision I have ever had to make in life,” she said.
Her dad was 68, MacAskill was 38.
And the “unfairness” of having to make that fateful decision, despite the fact her father was already clinically dead, has stayed with her.
“I can’t measure anything else up against that,” she said.
The other driver was treated for non-life-threatening injuries. A case of open beer and bottle of rum were found in his car and his blood/alcohol, taken a number of hours later, still registered almost three times the legal limit. He was sentenced to three and a half years in jail. He served a mere portion of that time.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in Nova Scotia was still in its infancy at that time. With a desire to do something positive, and channel her heartbreak and anger, MacAskill decided to volunteer with the organization. She now serves as regional director for MAAD Canada and May will mark 25 years since she joined.
Despite the increase in fines and penalties and public education initiatives developed in the interim, the message about the dangers and risks of impaired driving is still missing the mark too many times, she said.
“There is no factor of ignorance or not knowing anymore. But people will take the risk because the likelihood of being caught is still very minimal,” she said.
Part of that reason, MacAskill said, is policing numbers are stretched to the limit and there are drivers still willing to take the risk of getting caught.
And while laws have changed that enable spot checks and mandatory roadside screenings for alcohol and drugs, social media sharing of those locations often hampers efforts.
“There’s no one simple thing that is going to solve this problem. Ultimately, it comes down to everyone making a responsible choice. If you are going to be out socializing or you are going to be at a party, have a safe plan to get home,” she said. “Don’t risk hurting yourself or anyone else.”
Not only are lives needlessly taken, the effect on survivors lasts a lifetime.
“I still felt so violated and angry and just ripped off I guess, because in my imagination I wanted a different outcome,” she said.
“I feel that we missed out on so many things in life. He was a very vibrant family man, full of life. Certainly a leader a protector, World War II vet, loyal employee …
“I think of him every day and wonder what would have been.”
Changes to the Canadian Criminal Code the past couple of years with respect to drinking and driving have both increased penalties and eased the burden for prosecutors, a Truro Crown attorney says.
“Recent changes to the criminal code make these charges easier to prosecute and the penalties stiffer,” said Thomas Kayter.
The trial process has been made “much more streamlined and straightforward,” according to Kayter, while a lot of the old “technicalities” previously used by defence lawyers have been alleviated.
“The criminal code has done away with the need for experts in many cases,” he said. “It makes it easier for us to prosecute. Things that we used to have to prove are now presumed to be proof, so to speak, for court.”
One example is that breathalyzer experts are no longer required to testify in court cases regarding an accused’s level of impairment. Instead, Crown attorneys can use recognized calculations – that the amount of alcohol in a person’s system decreases by 10 milligrams per hour – based on the amount of time that has passed between the point when a driver is stopped by police and when the breathalyzer reading is taken.
“Now, the criminal code just allows us to add 10 milligrams per hour, right there in court, so we don’t need an expert,” Kayter said.
Another change is that a person can be charged for impaired driving – by either drug or alcohol – within two hours after being behind the wheel of a vehicle.
One reason for that change is to limit a defence argument for when a driver claims to have not consumed alcohol until after they had finished driving but before providing a breath sample.
“This defence often arises where there has been a serious collision and the driver claims to have been settling their nerves,” the revised regulations state. “This undermines the integrity of the justice system as it rewards conduct specifically aimed at frustrating the breath-testing process.”
The legal level at which a driver is deemed to be impaired has also changed.
Drivers previously were charged with impaired driving if they registered a reading above 0.08 per cent (0.08 grams of alcohol in 100 ml of blood). Charges now can be laid if the driver registers at the 0.08 mark.
From a penalty standpoint, the minimum fine for refusing the breathalyzer now stands at $2,000, which is double the previous minimum of $1,000. That is intended to thwart someone attempting to avoid a stiffer monetary penalty if they believe they would have registered a high breathalyzer reading.
“The government’s given us new tools to prosecute these offences and we intend to use every one of them,” Kayter said. “The Crown will press every one of those charges to the maximum strength allowable by law.”
Over the past four months, RCMP members in Nova Scotia charged 412 motorists with impaired driving offences, relating to either drugs or alcohol.
Although the February and January’s figures (49 and 96, respectively) are down from both December (147 offences) and November (120 offences), those overall statistics are alarming nonetheless, officials say.
“It is concerning,” said RCMP Cpl. and provincial spokesperson Jennifer Clarke. “I will note that the overall numbers for this past month (January) are lower than the previous two months when you look at the totals, which is not a bad thing, but it’s very important to look at the difference in the overall trends and to pass it on to our members and make sure everyone is aware of what we’re seeing for trends, and then readjust our strategies,” she said.
“And what we do with that information is, we bring it back to our members and sometimes adjust how we enforce the impaired driving laws. But it’s very important that we do have the ability to look at the stats and analyze them and perhaps reevaluate where we go from here and how we do target enforcement of impaired driving.”
Statistics show that the overall numbers of drivers convicted of drinking or drug offences in Nova Scotia have also been declining over the past decade. But those totals indicate there are still far too many impaired drivers on the roads, officials say.
And, most concerning from Clarke’s perspective at the moment, is that the number of drivers being charged with driving while under the influence of a drug is showing a drastic increase.
That was especially so in January when RCMP officers charged 27 motorists with being impaired by drug, compared to five in December and seven in November. And those numbers only reflect the charges laid by RCMP members and do not include offences registered by municipal police officers.
“The courts reported statistics are alarming,” said Truro Crown attorney Thomas Kayter of impaired driving convictions.
“The statistics that we have are high across the whole province, not just here. But they are particularly high in Colchester and a single statistic is one too many,” he said. “But the statistics that we have here are an absolute outrage on society.”
According to numbers compiled by the Nova Scotia Prosecution Service, between April 1, 2018 and March 31, 2019, there were 2,685 motorists convicted in Nova Scotia of drinking and driving offences. For the same period in 2008-09, a total of 3,770 motorists received drinking and driving convictions in Nova Scotia courts, for an overall reduction of 1,085 convictions over the past 11 years.
Those numbers have been steadily declining over the same period, except in the 2013-14 fiscal year when the numbers increased to 3,488 from 3,351 the previous year, and in 2016-17 when they increased to 3,211 from 3,193 in 2015-16.
“The Crown views impaired driving as a very serious offence and makes every effort to hold those who offend accountable to the full extent that the law allows,” Kayter said.
Convictions registered in Truro provincial court show that area has recorded the province’s third-highest impaired driving convictions for three of the past 11 years, including in 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2016-17.
For the other eight years, Truro recorded the fourth highest number of impaired driving convictions.
Over the same period, Dartmouth recorded the highest number of impaired convictions for eight of the 11 years, followed closely by Halifax in second.
Halifax showed the highest number of convictions for three years over that period while Sydney carried the third-highest spot for eight of the past 11 years.
A recent day’s docket in Truro provincial court contained 77 charges, 26 of which were for impaired driving offences.
Although Kayter later suggested that breakdown as a bit of an “anomaly,” perhaps related to the Christmas holidays, the “troubling” number of alcohol/drug driving offences on the docket was high enough to prompt a rare statement from Judge Al Bégin prior to the day’s proceedings.
“I have no idea what it will take to get the message through to the citizens of Colchester County that it is incredibly dangerous and irresponsible to be drinking and driving,” the judge said. “Hopefully the message gets out soon before we add to the staggering number of fatalities and injuries of members of our own community.”
Bégin went on to say that while the Supreme Court of Canada has proclaimed drinking and driving as the country’s most preventable crime, people continue to be killed or injured on Canadian roads every day.
For years, MADD Canada has used figures provided by the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators (CCMTA) that say four people are killed and 175 persons are injured every day on Canadian roads by drivers impaired by either alcohol or drugs.
“As long as I’ve been a police officer impaired driving has been a problem,” added Clarke, a 24-year veteran. “We need to continue getting out there and addressing the problem.”
The RCMP stats for January show 34 drivers were charged with impaired operation by alcohol, 27 were allegedly impaired by drug, eight were charged with refusing a blood/breath sample demand and one driver complied with a demand for a blood sample due to suspected drug-impaired driving. Another 26 motorists were issued driving suspensions for operating a vehicle while having consumed alcohol.
Sgt. Andy O’Brien of the Colchester RCMP detachment also acknowledged that, while the overall stats may be down and that impaired driving has become less socially acceptable in recent years, the job of eliminating drinking and driving is far from done.
“We’re still nowhere close to where we need to be,” he said.