With the flashing lights of close to a dozen police cruisers, the police roadblock at the Quadra Street highway overpass was hard to miss from the Pat Bay Highway.
About two dozen officers set up the roadblock last Saturday night, flagging down about 2,000 cars, handing out free coffee gift certificates to drivers who passed a breathalyzer test and issuing tickets until about 10:15 p.m.
After pizza at the Saanich detachment, police moved the operation to Highway 1 later in the night, wrapping up around 2 a.m.
They were among about 55 officers out on the streets of Duncan, Ladysmith, Nanaimo, Parksville, the Comox Valley, Port McNeill and Tofino last weekend to kick off the CounterAttack campaign — a month-long education and enforcement efforts to combat impaired driving.
As cars slowly made their way through the Quadra Street overpass on the outer lanes, RCMP Const. Ryan O’Neill, a long-time Victoria police officer and recent RCMP transferee, flagged down a GMC Terrain SUV with his lighted traffic wand.
The driver was a teenager driving without the required N sticker.
O’Neill approached the driver with the practised ease of someone who’s done traffic stops for more than 20 years — Can I have your driver’s license? What about the car’s insurance papers?
The young driver’s replies were muted and less certain. The car was a friend’s and no, she didn’t bring ID.
After a short while, O’Neill ducked into his own cruiser to run some checks on his laptop.
“She’s likely going to get a violation ticket for at least one of the matters because you can’t just drive around without a license or not having an N,” he told the Times Colonist. “I’m just going to check a few things out and try to be as kind as I can.”
O’Neill ended up ticketing the teen for one of the three violations he caught at the traffic stop, delivered with a candy cane. After affixing a magnetic N sticker to the back of the car, he sent her on her way.
The fine was $81, the cheapest of the three violations he found.
“We’re not always thrilled about about booking people,” he said. “I think she’s going to learn a lesson. She was very apologetic.”
Const. Sandra Bauch of Saanich police said her favourite part of the night was handing out candies to the kids in flagged-down vehicles.
Drivers would often thank police officers for their work and share stories, unprompted, of people in their lives who have been killed by an impaired driver, she said. “A lot of them are actually really happy to see us.”
While the longstanding CounterAttack campaigns — which began more than 40 years ago — are funded by ICBC, one senior Saanich police officer was out volunteering at the roadblocks on his own time.
In a briefing at the start of the operation, Saanich Deputy Chief Const. Robert Warren told his fellow officers about a close friend who was killed by an impaired driver in 1999. “His loss has stuck with me all these years … there’s a young family that he never got to know.”
Warren, who has worked in Saanich’s traffic safety unit for two and a half years, said it felt empowering to take impaired drivers off the road. “You’re making a difference. That’s at least once scenario which ended with a roadstop stop that wasn’t a catastrophic crash.”
He recalls one particularly bad crash on Highway 1 near Helmcken Road, where a drunk driver crashed his car just before 5 a.m. “I was just about to go off shift, and buddy went right into the retaining wall and the car just basically blew up on impact.”
Saanich Det.-Sgt. Damien Kowalewich said the night’s first CounterAttack roadblock was chosen for its highly visible location, though police also set up secondary roadblocks on Glanford Avenue, Royal Oak Avenue and Chatterton Way for drivers who might be trying to avoid the traffic buildup.
Staff-Sgt. Adam Tallboy, acting officer in charge of B.C. Highway Patrol on Vancouver Island, said not every driver will get flagged down if there’s too much traffic at a roadblock, but police will generally check every car during quiet nights.
He said officers working night shifts tend to conduct mandatory breathalyzer checks because it can be tricky to tell which drivers are impaired via other means. “Some people, they may be driving impaired but showing no symptoms because he or she has built a tolerance over the years.”
Since COVID-19, most officers no longer stick their heads into car windows and get up close to catch the potential whiff of alcohol on a driver’s breath, Tallboy said.
Besides, an officer wouldn’t be able to differentiate alcoholic odours from intoxicated passengers if there’s a designated driver, he said.
There are other obvious tells, however, such as if a driver is handing you their credit card and insisting that it’s a driver licence, he said.
And then there’s what Tallboy calls the blank stare.
“You get someone who just can’t focus their eyes on you, who’s just unable to kind of respond to your questions in any way or are giving inappropriate answers that don’t make a whole lot of sense,” he said.
Officers issued immediate roadside prohibitions to those who didn’t pass a breathalyzer test — nine were handed out last Saturday between both roadblocks, ranging from 24-hour suspensions to 90-day driving prohibitions.
On average, crashes related to impaired driving kill 10 and injure 305 in 520 incidents on Vancouver Island every year.
About 21 per cent of all vehicle-crash fatalities in B.C. involve impaired driving, according to ICBC.
Tim Stockwell, a scientist and former director at the University of Victoria-based Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, said alcohol-impaired driving is on the decline after peaking in 2020-21.
He likens the problem of impaired driving to being K-2 rather than Mt. Everest these days. “It’s a problem, but it’s likely to be getting slightly better.”
Stockwell said research shows visible police deterrence is effective in cutting down on impaired driving. “It’s not about catching criminals, it’s just preventing people doing dangerous things,” he said.
While impaired driving is one consequence of living in a car-dependent society, with more people cycling and using public transit, rates are declining, he said. “But a lot of people are [still] very dependent on driving to get around, and alcohol is our favourite recreational drugs.”
Consumption of alcohol spikes every year around December and New Year’s Eve, Stockwell said, adding the Island outside the capital region sees high levels of alcohol use.
Stockwell said there are other ways to prevent impaired driving than just policing.
“You don’t necessarily have to educate and win hearts and minds. You just make it harder for people to do dumb things, or easier for them to do safer things,” he said.
Stockwell suggests further restricting the sale, advertising, and availability of alcohol.
“The more the supply flows, the greater the consumption,” he said, adding that impaired driving incidents are correlated to increased rates of alcohol intake overall. “It’s just very, very predictable.”