Prince Edward Island convicts roughly 300 drunk drivers a year -- almost twice the national rate

The vehicles pictured were smashed during a collision caused by a drunk driver in Mt. Albion in 2010. RCMP Const. Russ Stewart was travelling in the red Toyota Echo when he was struck by Betty Lou Sarah McQuillan's Dodge van. She pleaded guilty..

RCMP Const. Russ Stewart’s only memory of being hit by a drunk driver two years ago is lying sideways in his smashed car, his left arm out the window and crushed under his vehicle, pain shooting through his arm and left leg.

His wife, Dalene, who was travelling in a separate vehicle and had just moments earlier pulled over to take a phone call, was the first to come across the mangled wreck of her husband’s car on the side of the road.

“I remember hearing my wife’s voice and I asked her what happened, and at the time I was thinking I must have just fallen asleep at the wheel or something and went off the road,” Stewart recalls.

“I don’t remember any collision of any kind, I don’t remember seeing or reacting to any vehicle coming at me.”

Stewart has pieced together the details about what happened the night of Oct. 6, 2010 from police reports.

He had taken the afternoon off work to go shopping in Charlottetown with his wife. While in town, they picked up their second vehicle from their daughter and were driving in separate cars back to their home in Cardigan.

On that same day in Cornwall, 40-year-old Betty Lou Sarah McQuillan was drinking at her home and later got into an argument with someone there.

She then left in her Dodge Caravan.

As she rounded a sharp turn in the highway in Mount Albion, travelling at a speed of 128 km per hour in a 90 km/hr zone, her van hit the shoulder. She over-compensated as she tried to bring it back onto the road, causing it to smash directly into Stewart's oncoming Toyota Echo.

Investigators later found an empty bottle of rum in McQuillan’s van and another open bottle with rum still in it. She sustained no injuries and police reported that she did not even seem to realize she had been in a serious collision.

Her blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit.

Stewart was kept in a drug-induced coma for a month after the collision. When he finally woke, he found he had sustained several severe injuries.

His femur was smashed, three ribs were broken, his left arm was crushed, his spleen was ruptured and had to be removed and his diaphragm was ripped open, forcing his stomach into his chest. He also had half a dozen broken teeth and sustained a brain injury that has caused memory loss and the loss of his peripheral vision.

The collision happened almost two years ago but Stewart still has not yet recovered enough to go back to work. He only just got his driver’s licence back three weeks ago.

He will never be able to return as a front-line RCMP officer.

But Stewart’s story has a relatively happy ending. He survived.

Tragically, Elizabeth Ann Sovis from Alberta was not so lucky. She was struck and killed by a van while cycling with her husband in Hunter River last week.

Clarence Arnold Moase, 49, of Kensington, driver of the van, has been charged with impaired operation of a motor vehicle causing death. He has not yet entered a plea nor has he been found guilty of this charge.

But Moase has been convicted and has served time in jail for drunk driving four times between 1993 and 2008. For his most recent conviction in 2008, where he was caught blowing readings of almost three times the legal limit into a breathalyzer, he served 70 days in jail and was imposed with a two-year driving ban and one year of using the ignition interlock system.

RCMP Sgt. Andrew Blackadar says he is frustrated at the public discussions that have ensued from Sovis' death. Many are debating the safety of highways for cyclists and whether P.E.I.’s shoulders are wide enough for cyclists to travel safely.

“Several other cars drove past that couple and were able to get by them without striking either one of them, they were able to judge distance, they were able to judge time and they were able to make it around them safely,” Blackadar said.

“They were wearing reflective vests and were doing everything right… unfortunately this individual, for whatever reason, struck one of those people.”

Moase has not been found guilty in this case, but he is one of many Island drivers who have been caught drinking and driving multiple times.

Many more are caught on first-time offences.

And it’s a problem that’s not going away.

Statistics Canada data shows the number of guilty sentences for impaired driving in P.E.I. has remained slightly above or below 300 for the past six years. This accounts for almost a third of the Island’s total criminal convictions and is almost twice the national rate.

So far this year, 174 people have been charged with impaired driving across P.E.I.

Blackadar said Prince Edward Island has the biggest problem with impaired drivers in the region.

“Our numbers compared to the rest of the Atlantic region are much higher than our next closest province,” he said.

“What angers me most is just the attitude that I see on the Island about drinking and driving, because it’s not taken seriously. I hear jokes about it all the time… people who laugh about the fact that they drove drunk for years.” - RCMP Const. Russ Stewart

“We’re doing what we would normally do in any other province and yet we’re finding them much more over here because I think there’s a higher ratio of impaired drivers here compared to the rest of Atlantic Canada.”

The P.E.I. RCMP are also seeing a disturbing trend among impaired drivers on P.E.I. Many of them are not just a little bit drunk, most of the time they well over the legal limit.

Also, a majority of those caught recently are falling into two age categories: 25 or younger and 50 or older.

“That just tells me that the huge impaired driving campaigns that were done 20 years ago worked… the people outside of that are people who are a little older who have always gone out drinking and driving or the people who are younger who aren’t getting the message,” Blackadar said.

Provincial Judge Jeff Lantz says he has been noticing a lot more young people in his courtroom facing impaired driving charges.

He said this troubles him because, for a time, it seemed younger Islanders had finally gotten the message about drinking and driving.

“I’m not sure what’s going on there, whether there is a trend there… it is concerning.”

A few years ago, P.E.I.’s three provincial judges decided they would crack down on impaired drivers.

They now all impose a minimum one to seven days in jail for first time offenders and increased the minimum fines to $1,200. These are the harshest sentences for first-time offenders in the country.

But drinking and driving remains a persistent problem. Just this week, a 25-year old woman from Murray Harbour was arrested for the second time for impaired driving. This marked the third impaired arrest in Kings County in the previous seven days.

“We did increase the punishment but it’s questionable whether it’s worked,” Lantz admitted.

Andrew Murie, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Canada, says he believes people drink and drive because they think they can get away with it.

“Every time an impaired driver is actually stopped and charged, they’ve done that hundreds of times before, so it’s a behaviour.”

That’s why MADD has been advocating for ways to increase the likelihood of catching drunk drivers. The organization has been lobbying the federal government to allow police to conduct random breath testing on drivers.

Murie said countries such as Australia, France and Ireland that have adopted random breath testing have seen fewer deaths on their roads.

“It also severely decreases the chance that somebody will take the chance of driving while impaired, because if they get pulled over or are reported, then they will get tested,” Murie said.

The P.E.I. RCMP, Charlottetown and Summerside municipal police forces all say P.E.I.’s recent campaign encouraging drivers to call 9-1-1 if they suspect another driver may be drunk has been a step in the right direction.

But MADD Canada wants to see more done to curb the disturbing upward trend of drunk driving in P.E.I.

“I don’t want to take away anything from what Prince Edward Island has done, but they’re not up to the level of what (other provinces) have done and if they’re clearly showing signs that charges continue to rise and deaths and injuries continue to rise, they need to look at provinces that have had the greatest success in the last couple of years.”

Despite having had to live with the devastating effects of one person’s thoughtless decision to drink and drive, Const. Russ Stewart says he is not angry with the woman who caused him so much pain and loss.

“I was more interested in forgiving her and getting on with my life. I didn’t want to waste any time or energy on her,” he said as he reflected on the day he watched as McQuillan was sentenced to 16 months in jail.

“What angers me most is just the attitude that I see on the Island about drinking and driving, because it’s not taken seriously. I hear jokes about it all the time… people who laugh about the fact that they drove drunk for years.”

When asked how he feels about the accident that claimed the life Elizabth Sovis on a P.E.I. road last week, Stewart was quiet for a long time before answering.

“Frustrated. Angry. But it just makes me want to work harder to try do to something about it.”

Source: The Guardian PEI


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Last updated on: 2014-12-30 | Link to this post