Driving under the influence: QA with OPP Sergeant Jan Idzenga

man being pulled over for suspected drunk driving

So you’ve had a couple of drinks. Are you okay to drive?

Close to four in 10 fatal motor vehicle collisions involved someone with a BAC (blood alcohol concentration) of at least 0.01, according to the 2009 Traffic Safety Facts data summary of the U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Two thousand of those drivers had a BAC of 0.07 or less. They were under the legal level of impairment (0.08 BAC)—but someone was killed.

To bring those stats into a Canadian context, MADD Canada estimates that 178 Canadians are injured or killed in alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes each day.

So how many drinks is one too many?

We had an enlightening chat with Staff Sergeant Jan Idzenga, Detachment Commander of the Niagara OPP, to find out more about “driving buzzed,” which we define as driving when you’re under the legal limit but shouldn’t be behind the wheel.

What does the OPP use as a definition of “buzzed driving”?

There is no legal definition of what you’re describing as “driving buzzed.” For us it’s “you’re driving under the influence of alcohol” or “you’re driving under the influence of drugs.” But you can definitely still be charged with impaired driving without being over the legal limit. Someone may have very low tolerance for alcohol. Someone else may have had a couple of beers but has also been smoking pot and they’re exhibiting extreme signs of impairment.

What are your feelings about buzzed driving?

To me, and this is my opinion, buzzed driving is probably the most dangerous. Drivers have got that liquid courage in them so they think they’re fine and they take extra chances. The cognitive skills required to drive a car are very complex. When you put even a little bit of alcohol into the mix and it starts to suppress that part of your brain, you get problems.

Do you see the consequences of buzzed driving on Ontario roads?

All the time. We get reports of a vehicle hitting a guardrail or going into a ditch and by the time our officers get there the vehicle’s gone—the person’s said, “Oh, better get on my way before someone finds me.” There are lots of cases where we’ve had a fatality and the driver has blown under [0.08 BAC].

Is there a reliable way of knowing if your alcohol consumption is affecting you?

That’s a tough call. You can’t judge yourself because, as I say, you get a little alcohol in you and you think you’re the greatest driver in the world when actually your ability is impaired. If you have one or two drinks over a two-hour period, I’d tend to say you’d be pretty safe doing that. But everybody’s body reacts differently and eliminates alcohol at a different rate. It depends on what you’re drinking and over what time period. Only time will clear alcohol from your system. You can have as much coffee as you want, as much food as you want, you’ll still have to wait a certain length of time before that alcohol’s eliminated from your body. You’ve got to be very cognizant of it. We’ve had crashes in the morning where people are impaired and they say, “I haven’t had a drink all day.” Well, you drank last night and it’s still in your system.

What’s the most important thing for people to remember when they drink?

The bottom line is to make the decision to drink or not before you go out. If you are going to be drinking, get a designated driver or make other plans before you start. People that we pick up for impaired driving usually have not made any arrangements whatsoever. We’re not telling you that you can’t have one drink, but if you’re going to have more than one, you’re best to make other arrangements beforehand. We’re seeing a lot more planning ahead among young people. They’re saying, “If I’m going to drink I’m not going to take a chance.” You’ve got to look at the consequences if you get caught for impaired driving. You lose your license, you have a criminal record now so you won’t be allowed in other countries, you have all the monetary sanctions, your insurance rates go up, you have legal fees for going to court, you might not be able to get to your job without driving. It’s not worth it.

What if you forget to plan ahead?

There’s lots of good programs out there. Companies will send a taxi with another driver to drive your car home. CAA Niagara’s got a program where if you’re a member and drink, they’ll send a tow truck out, pick up your car, take you home and drop your car in your driveway.

If you have a party, what are your responsibilities?

That’s civil law, not what the OPP deals with. But it’s your responsibility to know how much alcohol you have in your house, how many guests you have. You’re the one that’s providing the alcohol and you should be the one to say “enough is enough.” If you’re truly a friend or it’s your loved one, you should take on that burden and say, “No, we’re not going to let you drive.”

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