TOLL OF DRUNK DRIV­ING

Mar­ion Haluik joins grand­daugh­ter Dakota Sch­midt at a me­mo­rial at the site of a crash where Dakota’s mother, Daphne, was killed by an im­paired driver on High­way 6. We look at how im­paired rates are fall­ing across Canada, but not in Saskatchewan.

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To Daphne Sch­midt, the uni­verse was full of won­der.

On her drive to and from the Regina day­care where she worked with her daugh­ter Dakota, Daphne would search for shapes in the clouds. Me­teor show­ers were not to be missed, and so she would bun­dle her chil­dren — Dakota and her brother Cody — into the box of the truck on their Cu­par-area acreage. There, as they lay side by side be­neath blan­kets, they would stare up into the night sky.

Now the sky is one of the places 21-year-old Dakota looks for signs that her mother is still with her. An­other is a ditch on High­way 6 just south of the Qu’Ap­pelle Val­ley where Daphne, only six days shy of her 41st birth­day, was killed by a drunk driver.

A me­mo­rial, be­decked in flow­ers, pic­tures and an­gel wings, marks the spot. Dakota says she re­turns there at least once every two weeks to re­place flow­ers and be near her mom.

“I feel like a part of her is still here,” Dakota says, the strength in her voice be­lied by the tears on her cheeks as she stands on the spot where her mom died.

And re­turn­ing to the spot takes on an­other mean­ing for Dakota, since she was in the car too.

It was Jan. 21, just be­fore 6 p.m. Dakota was be­hind the wheel, her mom be­side her and the two young chil­dren of a friend in the back­seat, when a ve­hi­cle veered into their path.

The ve­hi­cles col­lided, crum­pling the Sch­midt car. Dakota, badly in­jured and ter­ri­fied, watched as her mother took her fi­nal breath.

The driver of the other ve­hi­cle, 35-year-old Wade Ganje, was speed­ing; his blood-al­co­hol con­tent (BAC) 2½ times the le­gal limit. Ear­lier this sum­mer, he pleaded guilty, re­ceiv­ing the equiv­a­lent of 45 months in prison. With re­mand credit, Ganje was left with three years to serve.

For Dakota, three years can­not be­gin to make up for what she and her fam­ily lost that day, and her faith in the jus­tice sys­tem has been bro­ken by the ex­pe­ri­ence.

But she is also strug­gling with the need­less way in which her mother died.

When Dakota was liv­ing at home with her par­ents, it was rou­tine for them to re­mind their kids about the dan­gers of im­paired driv­ing and to call for a ride should they need one.

“I know it’s some­thing that my par­ents felt re­ally strongly about,” she says.

Dakota took them up on the of­fer, her par­ents hav­ing ar­rived to pick her up on sev­eral late-night oc­ca­sions. And so she has a hard time wrap­ping her head around why peo­ple con­tinue to drive while im­paired — par­tic­u­larly in the num­bers seen in this prov­ince.

“I don’t know why it’s not go­ing through peo­ple’s heads," Dakota says, ref­er­enc­ing ed­u­ca­tion and ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns as well as tragic sto­ries like her fam­ily’s that have made the news. “`I don’t know why peo­ple aren’t get­ting the mes­sage, but I think a ma­jor change needs to hap­pen soon.”

Like Dakota, Regina Po­lice Ser­vice Sgt. An­drew Puglia is at a loss to ex­plain Saskatchewan’s sky­high im­paired driv­ing rates.

“If I had the an­swer for that, we’d have the problem solved,” he says.

The lat­est fig­ures avail­able from Statis­tics Canada come from 2015 when Canada recorded an over­all drop as well as its low­est rates (at 201 per 100,000) since the data was first col­lected in 1986. Not so in Saskatchewan, where the po­licere­ported im­paired driv­ing rate was 575 in­ci­dents per 100,000 pop­u­la­tion — close to dou­ble the rate for Al­berta, the prov­ince with the next high­est rate at 314.

Mean­while, many prov­inces have re­ported sig­nif­i­cant de­creases in their rates over the past 30 years, the most no­table hav­ing dropped as much as 75 per cent. Saskatchewan again bucked the trend with the low­est 30-year de­cline at 37 per cent.

As could be ex­pected, both Regina and Saska­toon placed within the top 10 when com­par­ing rates among cen­sus met­ro­pol­i­tan areas (Regina came in third high­est, while Saska­toon sat at sixth).

Puglia has seen the ev­i­dence — and the re­sults — first­hand. He’s been a mem­ber of the city po­lice al­most as long as those stats have been col­lected and has spent most of his 28 years on the force work­ing in traf­fic-re­lated po­si­tions. One of his more re­cent roles was as col­li­sion co-or­di­na­tor in which he in­ves­ti­gated se­ri­ous and usu­ally fa­tal crashes. While he can’t put an im­me­di­ate num­ber on it, he says a “sig­nif­i­cant num­ber” in­volved some de­gree of al­co­hol and/ or drug use.

“In 28 years, I’ve seen (penal­ties) in­crease and only be­come tougher,” he says. “I do find (the high rates) shock­ing. It’s pre­ventable. A per­son can make a con­scious de­ci­sion not to drink and drive and if they don’t, then they won’t be in­volved in a fa­tal col­li­sion in­volv­ing al­co­hol.”

That would suit him fine. He says he and other first-re­spon­ders bear the scars of the things they’ve seen, Puglia hav­ing had to per­son­ally de­liver fam­ily no­ti­fi­ca­tions in a num­ber of the es­ti­mated 50 fa­tal­i­ties he’s at­tended.

“Peo­ple have asked me, ‘Isn’t it hard to in­ves­ti­gate all those fa­tals?’ And it is,” he says. “And I say all those lo­ca­tions kind of have ghosts for me. When I drive by these lo­ca­tions, I have very ex­cel­lent rec­ol­lec­tion of what hap­pened there and what went wrong and I re­mem­ber all the de­tails of it ... It’s be­come very pop­u­lar that there’s a lot of peo­ple build lots of lit­tle shrines for the loved ones that they’ve lost at the col­li­sions at dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions. And every time I see one of those, the ma­jor­ity of them in the city are ones that I’ve been to. So it’s pro­foundly sad, is what it is.”

Justin Hodel was just 19 when his choice to drive im­paired left two fam­i­lies dev­as­tated — his own and that of the man he killed.

There was noth­ing un­usual about June 20, 2010, Hodel and his friends en­joy­ing a slow-pitch game be­fore spend­ing some time hang­ing out in a lounge. Both in­cluded drink­ing.

By the time he got be­hind the wheel of his SUV at about 5:40 p.m., he was de­scribed as be­ing drunk. Hodel says it wasn’t re­ally a mat­ter of mak­ing a thought-out de­ci­sion to drive im­paired.

“To be hon­est, you just re­ally didn’t think about it," he says of those days. “It was just be­ing im­ma­ture and not think­ing of any con­se­quences re­ally.”

Hodel ac­knowl­edges he and his friends rou­tinely drank and drove back then, Hodel hav­ing be­lieved any pos­si­ble con­se­quences would “just be ba­si­cally on me.”

He was wrong.

He was ap­proach­ing a con­struc­tion zone on Ring Road near the Ar­cola Av­enue over­pass when he rear-ended a car that had slowed. Court heard his ve­hi­cle was go­ing 125 km/h and that his BAC was more than twice the le­gal limit.

Steve Nick­lin, 88, — a back­seat pas­sen­ger in the car — died later that day in hos­pi­tal.

Hodel later pleaded guilty and re­ceived a jail term of two years less a day.

The in­ci­dent changed Hodel in more ways than one, caus­ing him to grow up vir­tu­ally overnight and to think far dif­fer­ently about drink­ing and driv­ing.

“I def­i­nitely don’t do it any­more," he says. “There’s def­i­nitely a lot of pro­grams out there or taxis or call­ing a friend, or Zero 8 (Des­ig­nated Driv­ers), stuff like that, or just not drink­ing to ex­cess.”

The crash be­came a les­son for his friends as well, who, he says, changed their ways upon re­al­iz­ing that if it had hap­pened to some­one they knew, it could hap­pen to them, too.

Now 26, Hodel says he still car­ries the weight of that day, and wants oth­ers to con­sider that be­fore they drink and get be­hind the wheel.

“It’s life-chang­ing,” he says. “Any­time now, as soon as life starts go­ing re­ally good and you’re happy about ev­ery­thing, you al­ways get dragged back down when you think about what you did. Be­cause now you kind of feel like you don’t de­serve any hap­pi­ness be­cause of the hap­pi­ness you took away from peo­ple. And it’s not a nice way to live af­ter­wards.”

For some, im­paired driv­ing is the prod­uct of im­ma­tu­rity or bad choices. For oth­ers, it’s di­rectly re­lated to al­co­hol prob­lems. And for many, it’s con­nected to Saskatchewan’s in­grained al­co­hol cul­ture, says ad­dic­tions coun­sel­lor Rand Teed.

As a part of his over­all job, Teed — pre­vi­ously a long­time in­struc­tor with the Drive With­out Im­pair­ment pro­gram — works with im­paired driv­ers who are con­fronting sub­stance-use dis­or­ders in bids for cu­ra­tive dis­charges from the court. (This type of dis­charge can be made avail­able to those with a his­tory of sub­stance de­pen­dency and is sub­ject to the of­fender’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in an al­co­hol or a drug treat­ment pro­gram.)

He says he of­ten hears peo­ple say they didn’t think they were as in­tox­i­cated as it turned out they were, while oth­ers were so in­tox­i­cated they had no com­pre­hen­sion of much of any­thing.

“Once you’re im­paired, you don’t have the abil­ity to ap­ply moral stan­dards to what you’re do­ing — which is why peo­ple think they can sing … ,” he says. “Peo­ple think they can sing af­ter they’ve had a few drinks be­cause they’re changed by the al­co­hol. And so if you think you can sing, you can also pretty eas­ily think, ‘well, I’m OK to drive.’ ”

Teed says the way many peo­ple in Saskatchewan view drink­ing is not re­spon­si­ble, with few pos­sess­ing ad­e­quate knowl­edge of low-risk drink­ing guide­lines or what con­sti­tutes a sin­gle drink, and a very real cul­ture of be­liev­ing drink­ing must in­clude get­ting drunk. Peo­ple have also nor­mal­ized drink­ing and driv­ing.

“Most peo­ple don’t know that any­thing over two drinks in two hours is go­ing to put them over .04,” he says. “So, if you go out for sup­per and have a cou­ple glasses of wine with sup­per, you prob­a­bly shouldn’t drive. But if you’ve done that once or twice and noth­ing hap­pened, then you start think­ing, ‘well, it’s OK.’ And the other part of this is the brain piece. As soon as we start drink­ing, it starts to im­pair judg­ment. It’s not like we are stag­ger­ing drunk, but we have re­duced abil­ity to self-as­sess. And so then we think, ‘Well, I’m not that bad.’ ”

But what makes Saskatchewan’s rates so much higher? While it’s true the prov­ince has a sig­nif­i­cant ru­ral pop­u­la­tion with lim­ited ac­cess to pub­lic trans­porta­tion, Teed thinks our problem largely comes down to a lack of ed­u­ca­tion on lowrisk drink­ing.

“We’ve done lots on ‘Don’t drink and drive. Don’t drive im­paired,’ ” he says. “The problem with that is once you’re im­paired, that stuff doesn’t mat­ter. So, un­less you make a de­ci­sion be­fore you go out drink­ing that you’re tak­ing al­ter­nate trans­porta­tion, there’s no guar­an­tee that you’re not go­ing to get in your ve­hi­cle and drive. And so we need to do bet­ter work on ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple about how much is too much and ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple about what hap­pens to them when they drink.”

Wen­dell Wal­dron, com­mu­nity leader with the Regina branch of Moth­ers Against Drunk Driv­ing, agrees we have nor­mal­ized im­paired driv­ing in this prov­ince, with changes in at­ti­tude slow to kick in.

“We have an at­ti­tude in our prov­ince that ba­si­cally says that pro­vided that you don’t kill any­one, it’s not too big of a deal ... ,” he says.

“The at­ti­tudes that we have here are not that much dif­fer­ent than what they were in On­tario about 30 years ago. So it is an op­por­tu­nity to per­haps take a look at our leg­is­la­tion and de­cide what’s im­por­tant to us and per­haps im­ple­ment the right ideas that per­haps can change some of these at­ti­tudes in the right way.”

Cer­tainly, penal­ties have in­creased, both fed­er­ally and provin­cially.

In Saskatchewan, SGI an­nounced a round of stiffer penal­ties ear­lier this year, in­clud­ing zero tol­er­ance for driv­ers 21 and un­der (pre­vi­ously 19 and un­der) and the in­tro­duc­tion of three-day ve­hi­cle seizures for ex­pe­ri­enced driv­ers with a .04 who are first-time of­fend­ers.

SGI has also been con­tin­u­ing to work on the ed­u­ca­tion side with ads and cam­paigns like the “dis­ap­pear­ing peo­ple” and “wing­man” ads.

Earl Cameron, ex­ec­u­tive vi­cepres­i­dent of SGI’s Auto Fund, is hope­ful the work be­ing done will have a pos­i­tive im­pact on the next set of num­bers re­leased. But he ac­knowl­edged real change is of­ten not ac­com­plished quickly.

“It takes a very long time to change be­hav­iours when they’ve been in­grained in peo­ple,” he says. “And cer­tainly, drink­ing and driv­ing in this prov­ince has been a long­time is­sue. All of the things we’re do­ing now and all of the things we’ve been do­ing since 2014 will have an ef­fect. And we be­lieve we’re start­ing to see that ef­fect, and hope­fully by the end of the year we’ll be able to say, ‘These are the kind of num­bers we see com­ing down.’ The aware­ness is there. Peo­ple are talk­ing about it ... They’re un­der­stand­ing that this is a ma­jor is­sue and also un­der­stand­ing that this isn’t an is­sue for the po­lice or an is­sue for SGI; it’s an is­sue for all of us. And I do think the mood in this prov­ince is chang­ing on this.”

Wal­dron agrees there is hope. He fre­quently talks to young peo­ple and be­lieves they are get­ting the mes­sage about the dan­gers of im­paired driv­ing. And while he sees ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties still lag­ging be­hind, ur­ban cen­tres are “start­ing to ac­cept the mes­sage that it doesn’t make sense to drink and drive.” But there is a long road ahead. “Un­for­tu­nately, our prov­ince over the years has lagged leg­isla­tively be­hind what other prov­inces have done,” Wal­dron says. “So we have a cul­ture of im­paired driv­ing in our prov­ince, and while we’ve made a num­ber of changes to com­bat our high in­ci­dence of im­paired driv­ing, it hasn’t re­ally taken hold yet. They will take hold over time, pro­vided that we have the proper leg­is­la­tion in place. We have bits and pieces of it right now, which is a real pos­i­tive. But it’s un­for­tu­nately go­ing to take a bit of time be­cause there were so many years where we didn’t do enough.”

Dakota is con­tin­u­ing with phys­io­ther­apy but knows she might never be in the same phys­i­cal con­di­tion she once was. Her bat­tles on the psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional side also con­tinue as she deals with lin­ger­ing night­mares and the knowl­edge that the woman she con­sid­ered her best friend isn’t com­ing back.

She has since started tak­ing med­i­ca­tion to numb her brain into sleep so she isn’t plagued by the night­mares — some­times re­liv­ing the crash, some­times en­dur­ing one in which some­one else she cares about dies be­side her while she goes on.

“I think of all the things now that she’s go­ing to miss, and I think that’s one of the hard­est things ... ,” she says of her mom. “What I’m re­ally strug­gling with now is just kind of ac­cept­ing that I’m go­ing to have this en­tire life­time that she’s not go­ing to be here for and that she has a life­time that she’s go­ing to miss over some­body else’s de­ci­sions, some­body else’s choices.”

It isn’t easy for Dakota to talk about, par­tic­u­larly so soon af­ter, and silent tears of­ten slip from her eyes as she speaks. But she is driven by the hope that her story can be the im­pe­tus for change, at least for some­one.

“If by telling my story — my fam­ily’s story — helps and changes one per­son’s de­ci­sion to drink and drive and it can im­pact that one life, then you’ve al­ready made the dif­fer­ence,” she says.

TROY FLEECE

TROY FLEECE

Dakota Sch­midt vis­its a road­side me­mo­rial at the site of a crash where her mother was killed by an im­paired driver ap­prox­i­mately 40 kilo­me­tres north of Regina on High­way 6.

MICHAEL BELL

Sgt. An­drew Puglia of the Regina Po­lice Ser­vice stands with sur­vey equip­ment at head­quar­ters. The equip­ment is used to an­a­lyze traf­fic ac­ci­dents, of which Puglia has in­ves­ti­gated many in his ca­reer.

Steve Nick­lin, 88, a back-seat pas­sen­ger, died af­ter the car he was in was rear-ended by an­other ve­hi­cle with an im­paired driver be­hind the wheel. Justin Hodel pleaded guilty and re­ceived a jail term of two years less a day.

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Daphne Sch­midt was killed by a drunk driver in Jan­uary.

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