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Thanks to a report this month from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the news has gone global on Canada having the worst record in the industrialized world for traffic deaths linked to drunk driving.

Transport Canada estimates 2,227 Canadians a year die in all traffic fatalities, a relatively low number compared to Europe or the U.S. However, almost half of the Canadians killed, 1,074, were victims of collisions in which booze was a factor.

That’s a high percentage and tells us something is wrong. Since it’s the same drivers and same roads that are normally quite safe, something else besides drivers and roads has to be identified as the culprit.

Yet the focus of most campaigns on this issue, the most persistent of which are led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), focus on drivers accused of drinking under the influence.

The obvious reason for this focus is the hugely disproportionate number of young (aged 20 to 35) male drivers involved in these collisions, as well as the hours of the day when a huge percentage of these deaths are inflicted.

Males account for 82 per cent of drunk driving charges, according to Stats Canada numbers from 2011. Drunk drivers in the age group from 20 to 35 account for half the drunk driving charges, even though such drivers only make up 27 per cent of all licensed drivers, a Transport Canada study of 2014 shows. The study also shows the darkest hours are the most dangerous — from 11:00 at night until 4:00 in the morning, peaking from 2:00 to 3:00 a.m., just as bars are taking orders for last call.

Taking one last drink for the road likely accounts for alcohol-influenced state of both drivers and pedestrians killed in car crashes. Some 40 per cent of slain pedestrians are estimated to have been alcohol-impaired.

The Toronto Star front-paged the “deadly mix on Canada’s roads” on July 23, revealing that alcohol impairment was involved in 33.6 per cent of motor fatalities — the highest rate in the world.

The Star also featured MADD spokespersons who dissed Canadian federal and provincial authorities for failure to test and penalize those driving under the influence. A MADD report card of 2015, in which only Alberta got as high as a C+ rating for its laws on drunk driving, identified 20 best practices that could be implemented. They are all related to strict testing of suspected drunks, and swift and severe punishment of those drinking while driving.

Though I heartily support all these 20 best practices, I want to draw attention to the one-sidedness of just punishing drunk drivers.   

I think it’s time to look at “causes behind the causes,” look for preventive rather than punitive after-the-fact measures, and work on a strategy to change the booze culture.

To start with, Canada has a drinking problem. Drinking and driving is one result of that.

In a 2013 report, the Center for Mental Health and Addiction estimated that Canadians drank 50 per cent above the global average, and were also more likely to binge drink — considered the most unhealthy way to consume alcohol, even if driving afterward is not an issue.

In sharp contrast to tobacco, where governments throughout Canada have taken a lead in “de-normalizing” smoking — not allowing tobacco companies to promote their death-dealing product in ads or associate smoking with positive cultural or sports events, not allowing people to smoke tobacco in confined public spaces, or to buy cigarettes from store shelves that don’t reek of being sketchy, or inside packages that don’t look creepy — governments do little to de-normalize alcohol. The Ontario government recently auctioned off rights to sell booze rights to monopoly food retailers. That, in effect, normalizes alcohol by associating it with foods that everyday families consume regularly.

Unlike food, however, alcohol is a potentially addictive drug that causes disease. It is responsible, according to a 2013 CAMH report in the science publication, Addiction, for five per cent of the disease burden in Canada, which comes at a  major cost to the general public. The latest edition of Addiction says alcohol could be a cause of seven distinct varieties of cancer. The link between alcohol and good times is not as simple as booze ads suggest.   

On top of direct medical costs of alcohol-related diseases, a MADD report of 2015 estimates that $20.62  billion is the full cost of death and injuries caused by driving fatalities where alcohol was involved. So we can save a lot of money if we’re serious about improvements.

Unlike the situation with tobacco, such information is not shared with consumers on booze labels or in  places where alcohol is sold.

The permitted slogan on drunk driving campaigns sponsored by alcohol companies is “drink responsibly,” which just happens to give equal weight to both messages — drink, the verb,  and responsibly, the adverb. A gentler spin than the straight-forward “Don”t drink and drive!”

It may be that we are held back by the government habit of separating food and drink, assigning each issue to separate departments, even though people eat and drink together, and even pair certain foods with certain drinks.

Indeed, if food and drink were properly paired – not just wine and cheese, or beer and cheese, but food and drink generally – we might go some way to getting rid of a chugalug culture that transforms people into sloppy drunks who can’t walk, talk or think any more capably than they can drive.  

This is the sophisticated way it’s done in Europe, and can lead to a “less is more” sipping culture of drinking alcohol for pleasure, not to get drunk.

If we moved against the culture of alcohol as we have moved successfully on the culture of tobacco, we might, for example, insist that booze only be sold in conjunction with food. We could also establish and enforce regulations that restaurant, bar and tavern staff cannot sell alcohol to anyone who is already tipsy. 

Aside from the standard public policy conversation promoting stronger policing measures against drunk driving, I would like to see a different dialogue addressed to changing Canada’s dangerous food and beverage cultures into a pleasure-centred culture that allows us to police ourselves.

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A photo of Wayne Roberts

Wayne Roberts

Wayne Roberts was best known for his leadership of the Toronto Food Policy Council during the years from 2000 to 2010. After retiring from the paid workforce, he served on boards of several food charities...