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.
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.
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.
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.
Daphne Schmidt was killed by a drunk driver in January.