A police check stop near Brandon, Manitoba. The RCMP have been trying to address the issue of unsafe driving by performing more check stops on the roads this summer. SUBMITTED

Original Published on Jul 23, 2022 at 10:06

By Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

With soaring temperatures and freedom from COVID-19 restrictions, summer has settled over Westman, bringing with it a relaxed atmosphere.

While most people are eager to take advantage of Manitoba’s short summer season, others are worried about the possibility of impaired driving rates rising.

Tara Seel, media relations officer for Manitoba RCMP, can understand their sentiments. She said the uptick in fatalities on Manitoba roadways this summer have been startling.

“So far this year, we’ve had 38 people who have died on our roadways. Last year at this time, we were at 28.”

Seel thinks this could be a result of more traffic on the highways due to lifted COVID restrictions and the onset of warm weather.

“We’re seeing people heading out to their cabins, going on road trips. And with the high cost of other modes of transportation … for sure, we are seeing increased traffic on the roadway right now.”

That increase, Seel said, correlates with an increased chance of traffic collisions due not only to impaired driving, but to other high-risk behaviour such as distracted driving and speeding.

Impaired driving, she said, is one of the top causes of fatal and serious collisions. The RCMP is no longer calling these incidents “accidents,” as though no one were at fault. People always have a choice to make, Seel said, and she can’t fathom why anyone would choose to put themselves and others at risk on the road.

“The bottom line is, this is beyond education at this point. People know they’re not supposed to drink and drive. People know they’re not supposed to be impaired in any way when they get behind the wheel. People are making choices to engage in this type of behaviour.”

The RCMP have been trying to address the issue of unsafe driving by performing more checkstops on the roads this summer. But when officers and other first responders are called to the scene of an accident, Seel said it’s something that stays with them for a long time.

“Our frontline police officers who are on the roadway, and who are seeing the devastation that the choice to drive impaired is causing, can’t wrap their heads around the choice to drive impaired. Why would someone make this choice when there are so many options out there for you to get home safely and for you to ensure that those sharing the road with you get home safely?”

It’s a decision that Danielle Lewis, who lost her sister Taylor Renwick in 2015 to a traffic collision caused by impaired driving, cannot comprehend.

“It’s a choice,” said Lewis, the president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) for Brandon and the surrounding area.

She said MADD is committed to putting a stop to it. The organization offers victim and survivor services and awareness campaigns, and does a lot of education for school-aged children.

Lewis’ mother, Vicki Renwick, said the loss of 20-year-old Taylor was nothing short of murder.

“This guy didn’t get into his vehicle intending to kill my daughter, but [his blood-alcohol level] was three times the legal limit and he was driving faster than he was supposed to, so the results weren’t going to be good, for him and whoever he came into contact with, and unfortunately that night, it was Taylor.”

The effect the loss of Renwick’s beloved daughter has had on the family is devastating.

“It changes your life completely,” Renwick said. “And this guy … that took Taylor’s life is out of jail, and doing his thing. And she doesn’t get to.”

Renwick was always a staunch advocate against drinking and driving, but since the loss of Taylor, she has become even more involved, joining MADD, along with her two other daughters and father. She said the group is focused on getting more information out there about the dangers of drunk driving through school presentations and other awareness campaigns. Still, Renwick said it’s not so much the younger generation that is the problem as it is their parents, or even their grandparents.

“I see it being … the 50-, 60-year-olds, because they’ve done it for years, and they just keep doing it,” Renwick said. “You hope that the kids will go home and even talk to their parents. You just have to hope that they see the message and maybe it triggers [something].”

Renwick said it’s not necessarily a lack of awareness that is behind the issue as it is a belief that others hold that the dangers of drunk driving won’t ever affect them.

“It doesn’t seem like rocket science, but people just don’t get it,” she said. “Until it happens to you, I don’t think it will hit home. They think it’s not going to happen to them, which it does.”

In contrast to Renwick’s concerns about people not taking the dangers of impaired driving seriously, a Westman resident’s online comments tell another story. The Sun posted on its Facebook page asking to speak to people who had been impacted by impaired driving.

“Lol got drunk, drove, got caught and lost [my] license … lol good times,” wrote Thomas James Huston, who lives in Binscarth, 166 kilometres northwest of Brandon. “It was my experience and no one was hurt except me.”

Sgt. Kirby Sararas, public information officer with the Brandon Police Service, said cases of impaired driving charges in the area have actually declined in the last few years. In an email to the Sun, she said the COVID-19 pandemic played a factor in the lower numbers.

“Individual habits changed when there were limitations on how people could gather in their homes or in public. We won’t be able to truly see if these changes are permanent or if the numbers will go back up until we have a year where all restrictions are lifted.”

Some changes have recently been made to the Highway Traffic Amendment Act that could also be affecting the numbers. According to Sararas, the changes have reduced the number of criminal charges from impaired driving.

The changes, which came into effect in December 2019, are clearly reflected in statistics from Manitoba Public Insurance. There were 119 impaired driving suspensions that year, followed by 86 in 2020, and 63 in 2021. As of the end of June this year, a total of 41 impaired driving suspensions were handed out.

Sararas said the BPS is conducting checkstops and road watches this summer and throughout the year in an attempt to target unsafe driving practices, including impaired driving.

“Some of our checkstops are featured in key timeframes that the police and public notice an uptick in socializing. May long weekend always kicks off the annual summer road watch season.”

Sararas said she couldn’t comment on whether there is one time of year in particular that is more dangerous with regard to impaired driving.

“I can say that during times when people are more inclined to socialize, you can be assured that police will be actively targeting impaired driving.”

This item reprinted with permission from the Sun, Brandon, Manitoba