‘Your job isn’t done’: deaths and injuries from impaired drivers hit record low, but province aiming for zero

Linda and Lou Van de Vorst implored Saskatchewan drivers to continue reducing deaths and injuries from impaired driving to zero during a press conference in Regina on June 17, 2020. BRANDON HARDER/ Regina Leader-Post

Saskatchewan may be on the way to shedding its dubious title as the impaired driving capital of Canada.

Primary data shows that a record-low 21 people lost their lives in impaired driving incidents in 2019, a 61 per cent reduction from the ten-year average of 54. There were also only 332 impaired driving injuries reported in 2019, compared to the annual average of 595. Both the number of injuries and deaths are the lowest SGI has on record.

The result is being credited to a changing culture, brought about by public awareness campaigns, tougher legislation and the introduction of ride-sharing and stricter enforcement.

“I believe we are seeing a long-overdue culture change in Saskatchewan regarding impaired driving,” said Joe Hargrave, Minister Responsible for SGI and the MLA for Prince Albert Carlton.

“More and more people in this province are deciding that it’s simply not okay to drive impaired.”

While the record numbers are a big improvement, they’re not enough, Hargrave said.

“We cannot feel good that there were still 21 lives lost to impaired driving. One loss is too many. We can’t be satisfied with these numbers. We need to improve on them, and we will. I’m asking everyone to be a part of that culture change.”

Hargrave thanked bar owners and staff for ensuring their patrons have a ride home. He also thanked the many families who have spoken up and told their story in emotional awareness campaigns, such as the 2017 and 2018 campaign, People Shouldn’t Disappear.

One of these families was the Van de Vorst family of Saskatoon.

On January 3, 2016, an impaired driver struck a car carrying Jordan and Chandra Van de Vorst and their children, Kamryn, 2 and Miguire, 5. Jordan and Chandra died in the crash. Kamryn and Miguire passed away in the hospital.

Kamryn and Miguire’s grandparents, Linda and Lou Van de Vorst, were at Wednesday’s press conference to, once again, talk about how important it is to them to end impaired driving deaths in the province.

“That number, 21, is a vast improvement. I’m so happy to see that,” Lou said, adding that he was glad sharing his family’s story made a difference.

“I think people in Saskatchewan are grabbing hold that they need to be responsible themselves and responsible for others … getting a safe ride home.”

Still, like Hargrave, he knows the province can’t rest until the number of deaths on the Saskatchewan roads from impaired drivers reaches zero.

“It still astounds me that we have 21 people who passed away in 2019 (from impaired driving),” he said.

“I guess I’m not alone in that I think there are a lot of people in Saskatchewan who don’t understand the severity of the problem we have in impaired driving deaths and injuries.”

MADD Canada CEO Andy Murie credited SGI and Hargrave for doing their part in lowering the number of impaired deaths and injuries in Saskatchewan.

“It wasn’t long ago … I talked about Saskatchewan being the worst province for impaired driving,” he said.

“I’m very pleased to be here today. Minister Hargrave promised he would make a difference and he did. These things don’t happen without a champion and you’ve been part of the champions as we make these fundamental changes in Saskatchewan. I would like to commend the people in Saskatchewan for the start of making that cultural change. It’s a difficult one, but we’re seeing it right across the province. Thank you. Let’s keep it up and let’s do better.”

Seeing such a dramatic drop in numbers and a change in behaviour is unprecedented, he said.

SGI’s vice president of traffic safety, Kwei Quaye, agreed.

“I’ve been in the field of traffic and roadside safety for a long time,” he said.

“A change of 60 per cent is out of the ballpark, and something you don’t see. When you look across all the metrics, we are headed in the right direction and we are rapidly heading in the right direction the vision is zero. I believe we will be there because we have a lot of dedicated people working on this.”

Hargrave is also hoping to one day stand in front of Saskatchewan residents and announce that nobody died in the previous year at the hands of an impaired driver.

“We’re staying on it. We keep hammering it out there. Don’t drive impaired.”

Hargrave says his motivation comes from families like the Van de Vorsts.

“Its impossible to hear what they went through and not be touched by the experience,” he said. “It’s strengthened my resolve .. to do anything I can to fight impaired driving in Saskatchewan.”

For those families, what strengthens their resolve is the pain they, and others, suffer when impaired drivers end lives in the province.

Lou recently read the Saskatoon StarPhoenix story about Sophie Schnurr, 11, who died in a 2018 crash. Her mother’s car was struck by one driven by Anthony McClelland, who was driving 150 km/h in the wrong lane, which was 50 km/h over the speed limit.

It was four days before Christmas.

“It burns me here when I hear those things,” he said, clutching at his chest.

“I couldn’t sleep at night. I could feel their pain because I know what it feels like.”

Lou and Linda wish they didn’t have to tell their story. It still hurts them when they do.

“Four years ago, I pleaded with everyone to become socially responsible, to do their part to stop people from losing precious lives,” Linda said.

She once again called on the people of Saskatchewan to do their part to end impaired driving.

“Your job isn’t done. Neither is our job. They need to know our story. There are many other people that have lost loved ones due to an impaired driving crash. Every time they bring it up, it hurts.

“The hurt they have to go through — by the strength and grace of God, Lou and I have taken on this job to present this message so it won’t happen to anyone else out there. We want to stop people from hurting the way we are.

“We will work together to make this a proud province with very limited — or zero — impaired driving losses.”